Deer season isn't the only reason many hunters are excited this fall. Many are also eager to vote.
In Arizona, Arkansas, Tennessee and South Carolina next Tuesday, voters will be asked to decide if hunting and fishing are just a privilege or a constitutional right. The ballot measures are part of a trend: More states than ever are considering the ultimate legal protection for outdoorsmen.
In Nashville, retirees Charles Dukes and Roy Duncan spend most afternoons tromping around a wooded archery range, practicing their aim on deer and turkeys made out of hay bales.
Blake Farmer/Nashville Public Radio
Retiree Roy Duncan of Nashville takes aim at a target. He's one of many hunters who want their sport protected by state constitutions.
Blake Farmer/Nashville Public Radio
They've been around long enough to watch hunting's decline. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are now about 12.5 million hunters nationwide — that's down 11 percent from two decades ago.
The decline is one reason hunting enthusiasts are pushing to amend state constitutions.
As fewer people spend their weekends sitting in duck blinds or tree stands, Dukes believes the remaining hunters have to be proactive if they want their sport to survive. He's already seen changes in demographics and attitudes alter society's view of weapons.
"When I grew up," Dukes says, "people didn't think much about a person who had a gun, and now they practically call out the SWAT team. It seems like the more urbanized America becomes, the more prevalent that attitude becomes, too."
The National Rifle Association is behind the pro-hunting amendments. But the coast-to-coast push is about more than people moving off the farm and forgetting their firearms. Outdoorsmen say anti-hunting groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have made inroads in some parts of the nation. Ducks Unlimited spokesman Tony Dolle says hunters want to protect their pastime while they still can.
"I think this is a good way to do that," Dolle says, "not only to ensure our abilities and rights to hunt and fish, but [that] the hunting heritage is continued forever."
Some don't think such amendments are necessary. "We don't have a problem. It's almost, if it's not broke, don't fix it," says Johnnie Turner, the lone "no" vote when the Tennessee Legislature approved putting a constitutional amendment on this year's state ballot.
Turner is careful to add that she has nothing against hunting or fishing. After all, the sports generate about $2.4 billion in economic activity to the state each year. But there's a shared feeling among opponents that the amendments are a solution in search of a problem.
Georgia is one of 10 states that already have the right to hunt built into their constitutions. Peter Appel, a law professor at the University of Georgia, says the amendments could spawn more challenges to hunting regulations.
"To the extent that it gives people more of an opportunity to go into court and to second-guess what their legislature or their executive branch is doing, I don't think that it's a wise exercise of amending the constitution," says Appel. He says constitutions are for more fundamental rights. PETA makes the same point more sarcastically, asking: What’s next? Shopping? Golf?
It's true that hunting is now more about recreation for most enthusiasts than putting food on the table. But Kenny Parker, who's unemployed, isn't going out in the woods this year just for sports.
"Things are tight, bro, things are tight. So yeah, I'm trying to make sure I have meat for the winter," he says.
He'll be one "yes" vote on Tennessee's amendment, and he'll almost certainly be in the majority. The pro-hunting protections have passed in every state that's considered them.