By Christian M. Wade
---- — BOSTON — Mike Prendergast likes spending time outdoors, hiking through the wilderness, sleeping under the stars, and taking aim with his compound bow on white-tailed deer and wild turkey from his perch in a tree.
Working more than 50 hours a week as a welder doesn’t leave much time for hunting. Making it harder, a centuries-old Massachusetts law bans him from hunting on Sundays, usually his only day off work.
“You can go fishing, shopping and buy alcohol on Sundays, but you can’t hunt,” said Prendergast, 35, of Rowley. “Frankly, it doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Lawmakers are considering a repeal of the Sunday ban, the product of a Puritan-era blue law, and sportsmen, including Prendergast, are hopeful that it will finally succeed. Campaigns to repeal the ban have been persistent but short-lived in Massachusetts.
A bill filed by Rep. William Strauss, a South Shore Democrat, would allow bow-and-arrow hunting seven days a week during the state’s bow hunting season, which runs from Oct. 20 to Nov. 29. Another bill, filed by Rep. Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat, would allow rifle or shotgun hunting on Sundays. That legislation also includes provisions to protect pigeons and increases the penalties for “sexual abuse of animals.”
A third, filed by Rep. Anne Gobi, a Democrat from central Massachusetts, would allow bow-and-arrow hunting on Sundays and state holidays.
Opponents of loosening the restrictions, led by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, argue that hunting is allowed every other day, and hikers and bird watchers should be granted at least one day to enjoy the woods without worrying about getting shot or stumbling across a group of armed men dressing a deer carcass.
“It may have started as a blue law, but with less land in the state and more development, there are significant reasons to keep the ban in place,” said Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy for the MSPCA. “If anything, the need for the prohibition on Sunday hunting is more important than ever.”
Massachusetts is one of six states where hunting is completely banned on Sundays. The others are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, according to the National Rifle Association. Another five states restrict Sunday hunting.
Bob Young, a longtime bow hunter from Beverly, says the Sunday ban keeps younger hunters from getting involved in the sport.
“There’s a lot of people who work five days a week, and their kids are involved in youth sports on Saturdays,” he said. “So, the only time to get out with their sons or daughters and teach them about the oldest sport in the world is Sunday, and they can’t do it. It’s sad.”
Dennis Hayden, president of the Massachusetts Bowhunters Association, argues that the Sunday ban is preserved by “a vocal minority” of animal rights groups. He said people seldom get caught in the line of fire — especially from bows and arrows.
“Bow hunting is far less dangerous to non-hunters and hunters alike than any other form of hunting,” he said.
Hayden said bow hunting has gained acceptance as a means of controlling deer populations in rural and even suburban areas, where car collisions and Lyme disease from infected deer ticks are increasingly common.
What’s more, he said, the Sunday ban is chasing away big bucks. Hunters from the Bay State are heading to New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, which allow Sunday hunts, Hayden said.
Massachusetts also uses a portion of revenue from hunting licenses to buy and preserve tracts of open space. The state bought nearly 4,000 acres of land last year using proceeds from its $5 hunting licenses, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But the number of hunting licenses in Massachusetts has been on the decline since 1996, when 98,179 were issued, according to state figures. In 2012, 72,064 were issued.
“We’ve bought hundreds of thousands of acres of open space so hunters, hikers and bird watchers all can enjoy the outdoors,” Hayden said. “So, this would provide even more money for the state to preserve land.”
Amy Mahler, a spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife, declined to say if the agency has taken a position on the Sunday hunting ban and wouldn’t comment on the proposed bills. A spokesman for Gov. Deval Patrick did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The Sunday Hunting Coalition — which includes the National Rifle Association, National Shooting Sports Association and retailers including Bass Pro Shops — is lobbying to repeal Sunday hunting bans in states that still have them. But they’ve had few victories.
Last month, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a law giving hunters permission to go after deer and other wild animals on Sundays provided that they hunt on private property and stay 200 yards away from churches and other houses of worship. Some lawmakers have proposed expanding the legislation to allow hunting on public land.
“The economic impact of that is going to be through the roof, and it’s only on private land,” said Jake McGuigan, director of state affairs for the National Shooting Sports Association. “They’re going to have a lot of people coming into the state to go hunting.”
A 2011 study by the Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation suggested that Massachusetts would add 527 jobs and create $51 million in economic activity by lifting all restrictions on Sunday hunting. That estimate — based on surveys of hunters in Pennsylvania and North Carolina — assumes those in the Bay State would take advantage of at least one extra Sunday during the deer season.
McGuigan said Massachusetts lawmakers have wrestled similar bills in the past — including legislation allowing shotgun and rifle hunting on Sundays.
“For some reason, the leadership doesn’t want to bring this up,” he said. “Every year, it gets brought up, and every year, it gets shot down.”
In 2011, Gobi proposed legislation that would have allowed shotgun hunting on Sundays, but the bill never came up for a vote.
And her timing couldn’t have been worse. Shortly after filing the bill, a 66-year-old Norton woman walking her two dogs just was shot and wounded by a hunter who claimed that he thought she was a deer. The woman recovered from her injuries and the hunter, an off-duty state trooper, was not charged.
“The bill got some traction and after that nobody wanted to touch it,” Gobi said.”We got a lot of pushback on that one.”
Gobi said the non-hunting public tends to be more accepting of bows and arrows than shotguns. Because of that, she thinks the bow proposal has a better chance of passing.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for CNHI newspapers. He can be reached at email@example.com.