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SHOTGUN SPORTS AND THE CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO HUNT: VIRGINIA COURT TO DECIDE ZONING DISPUTE

Thursday, October 28, 2004

"The people have a right to hunt, fish, and harvest game," subject to regulation by the state legislature, according to the Virginia Constitution. Numerous states have such a guarantee, but few courts have decided the meaning of that right.

A lawsuit pending in Nelson County, located in rural Central Virginia, promises to be perhaps the first in the nation to do so. Orion Sporting Group LLC applied for a conditional use permit to re-open an on-going shotgun sports business on a new 450-acre rural tract of property where Orion has a licensed hunting preserve. It would have been a place for sportsmen and women safely to shoot shotguns at clay pigeons and ZZ-Birds that simulate the flight paths of upland game birds and other fowl as well as small game animals. Even though the facility would have complied with the existing noise ordinance, the County turned it down.

Orion filed suit, claiming that the denial violates the right to hunt. Hunting requires instruction in safety and proficiency. Sporting clays is the ideal learning tool for bird hunting. Such training minimizes chances of firearms accidents and, by teaching how to shoot clay and helice targets at different distances and angles, promotes the humane harvesting of game birds. It`s the very kind of hunter education and training that the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries promotes. The County`s refusal, the lawsuit also maintains, seeks to do an end run around Virginia state law, which restricts county authority to regulate hunting and firearm discharge to residential areas only. Lawyers representing Orion include Steven Raynor, John Simpson, and Stephen Halbrook.

The County sought dismissal of the suit, arguing that corporations have no right to hunt and that sporting clays isn`t hunting. Orion responded that many constitutional rights require the economic support that corporations offer. Newspaper publishers come to mind – the right to a free press couldn`t survive if only lone individuals could disseminate news and opinion. Moreover, simulated hunting makes one proficient at actual hunting. No one wants untrained "hunters" in the woods who can`t shoot straight.

In a decision on Oct. 4, 2004, Circuit Judge Michael Gamble held that Orion`s complaint sufficiently alleged violation of the constitutional right to hunt for the case to go to trial. The complaint was valid in that it asserted that the zoning ordinance "effectively has a county-wide ban on hunting because it prevents sporting clays shooting facilities and shooting ranges." The judge also held that it was proper for Orion to claim that, under the ordinance itself, hunting and sporting clays should be permitted. This decision clears the way for the case to go to trial.

Meanwhile, politicians in control of Nelson County have broadened their anti-hunter policies, ordering the closure of the Bucks Only Hunt Club shooting range which had existed for years. Then County Officials proposed amending the zoning ordinance to require Hunt Clubs to get special permits. In other words, you can exercise what the Virginia Constitution calls your "right to hunt" if some bureaucrat gives you permission. A sea of hunters – hundreds of them – in blaze orange caps opposed the proposal at a public hearing on Sept. 21, cheering Dawson Hobbs, spokesman for the National Rifle Association. Anti-hunters in the Nelson County Board of Supervisors need to be thrown out at coming elections. Meanwhile, the litigation continues.

For further information, contact Charles Jordan (cjordan@OrionEstate.com) or James Slaughter (jdslaughter@OrionEstate.com), Orion Estate, (434) 263-6622.

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