The recent flurry of firearms-related legislation proposed for the Virginia General Assembly’s 2020 session was expected following state elections this month that gave the Democratic Party control of both the House of Delegates and Senate.

One bill (Senate Bill 16) by incoming Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw (D–Fairfax) contains extensive prohibitions that hunters, recreational shooters and Second Amendment proponents feared. Modern, semi-automatic sporting rifles or even small semi-automatic rimfires and shotguns with features like thumbhole stocks or pistol grips–features that, ironically, make the firearm safer to handle—would become illegal.

Another Saslaw bill (SB 18) would make it a felony to leave loaded, unsecured firearms where anyone under age 18 could access them. This bill also contains a bombshell provision that makes it a crime for anyone under age 18 to use a firearm without adult supervision.

Presumably, this includes hunting scenarios.

Many are calling this proposed restriction something that will completely derail Virginia’s participation in the nationwide R3 (recruit, retain, reactivate) campaign.

Part of this initiative is ensuring our nation develops its youngest generation of conservationists. Hunters and anglers pay the brunt of the bill when it comes to conservation funding. Recreational shooters also contribute via the federal excise taxes they pay on their gear and ammunition.

Current Virginia law lets youngsters age 12 and over hunt alone if they have passed the state-approved hunter education course. No other state has an age 18 requirement as proposed by Saslaw.

Minimum ages vary around the country. Some states set the limit as high as age 16, the same age when a person can independently operate motor vehicles on public roadways; others set the bar as low as age 10.

According to the Families Afield coalition, consisting of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, National Wild Turkey Federation, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance and the National Rifle Association, for every 100 adult hunters today, only 69 youth hunters are coming up to take their place. Nearly 80 percent of adult hunters started hunting as children.

Past research has examined participation in hunting, including how people are introduced to that pursuit. A 2011 report by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Southwick Associates and Responsive Management, a survey research firm based in Harrisonburg, found “a clear link between avidity and age of initiation in hunting.”

The study noted that children begin getting bombarded with competing activities starting around age 12. The longer it takes to get them seriously involved in hunting, the less likely it is that they will remain hunters. Waiting until high school age is often too late.

Mark Duda, Responsive Management’s executive director, said: “It is pretty much documented in the literature that if someone doesn’t hunt before or about 16 or younger, they will not be an avid, lifelong hunter.”

Trust Parents

When it comes to setting ages when kids are mature and responsible enough to hunt, Families Afield urges the government to trust parents. Proponents of increasing the age limit, as proposed in SB 18, might argue that children could still hunt, albeit not on their own. Still, such additional restrictions would certainly equate to less hunting.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation quickly assailed the proposed legislation as “an extremely dangerous precedent and serious infringement on the rights of law-abiding gun owners in the Commonwealth and the firearms industry.”

Speaking about SB16, Mark Oliva, NSSF’s director of public affairs, pointed out that modern sporting rifles (the AR–15) are the most popular choice of rifle today, with more than 16 million in private possession, used every day for lawful purposes, including hunting, recreational target shooting and self-defense.

“The characteristics described as ‘disqualifiers’ by this proposed legislation are actually features that make the rifle easier to operate safely and accurately,” Oliva said. “The bill’s author is proposing to outright ban the possession, which would instantly turn law-abiding Virginia gun owners into instant felons simply for possessing the firearms they legally purchased and responsibly own today.”

‘Assault on ... Hunting Heritage’

Oliva called SB 18 “an assault on the hunting heritage of Virginians, a bill seeking to eliminate the traditions of hundreds of years of Virginia hunting by erasing the ability for young men and women to hunt, even after successfully passing hunter safety education courses.”

Emails to Saslaw’s Senate address requesting clarification as to why 18 was determined the appropriate age to let people handle firearms alone, as well as his assessment of how this law might affect hunter recruitment and future conservation funding were not answered.

A concerted effort is underway in many Virginia localities to pass largely symbolic resolutions declaring the county or city a “Second Amendment Sanctuary.” Meetings related to the topic are attracting hundreds of people. The democratic swing in the general assembly was mainly fueled by seats turning over in urban and heavily suburban areas in Northern Virginia, along the I–95 corridor and Hampton Roads. Many rural areas with a strong hunting and agricultural ethic, though, have elected members from the Democratic party.

As one state government watcher confided, “We’re hoping we have more friends on the Democratic side of the aisle than we’re guessing.”

Maybe that long-ballyhooed “conversation about common sense gun safety” is about to take place. Or, maybe the Democrats are ready to shove these laws down Republicans’ throats as readily as proposed gun laws were rebuffed in prior years.

Broader gun control questions aside, Duda says people are rightfully concerned about the danger of SB 18, noting, “This legislation would effectively destroy hunting participation in Virginia in the long-term. Maybe that is their real goal.”

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