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State fishing license requirements are suspended today in honor of the Fourth of July. If voters pass a constitutional amendment establishing the right to hunt and fish, could anglers enjoy the same freedom 365 days a year?
In short, probably not.
The text of Senate Bill 677, which places an amendment to the North Carolina Constitution on our ballots this November, starts out with a ringing endorsement of individual liberty.
"The right of the people to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife is a valued part of the State's heritage and shall be forever preserved for the public good," the proposed amendment states. "The people have a right, including the right to use traditional methods, to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife..."
So far, so good. But the amendment continues:
"...subject only to laws enacted by the General Assembly and rules adopted pursuant to authority granted by the General Assembly to (i) promote wildlife conservation and management and (ii) preserve the future of hunting and fishing."
Tar Heels, then, would have the right to hunt and fish — as long as the General Assembly and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission say it's OK.
We've noted Fishing Freedom Day's sad irony in the past. The one-day reprieve from licensure requirements is meant as a symbolic nod to American freedom, but it only serves to remind us how regulated, subjugated and micromanaged we are the other 364 days of the year.
Take the kids fishing on Independence Day without the state's permission and you're fine. Plan the same outing on July 5 and you'll likely pay a fine.
There are reasons the state charges license and permit fees for hunting and fishing, of course, but are they valid ones?
Wildlife conservation is the chief excuse, and it's true that the fees sportsmen and anglers pay help the state manage populations, monitor annual takes and work to prevent extinction and overfishing — all necessary tasks. What's not clear is whether the same result could be achieved voluntarily through membership in private conservation groups also working to preserve the state's stock of seafood and wild game.
Could organizations like the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, International Game Fish Association, Trout Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation and Ducks Unlimited take care of conservation by signing up members and sponsors instead of requiring people to pay up before they're allowed to hunt and fish?
Voluntary self-regulation is preferable to government using its power to shake people down. It's nearly always just as effective.
Former state Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, initially sponsored a version of the hunting and fishing amendment during his time in the legislature. Many media outlets mocked the bill as red meat, pardon the pun, for conservative voters. We countered that living off the land and feeding oneself is a natural right that ought to be enshrined in the state constitution.
The amendment's latest iteration doesn't seem to accomplish that. It seeks to call something a right but treat it as a privilege — that is, to subject it to all manner of laws, rules and regulations.
Judges used to draw a bright line between constitutional rights and conditional privileges. In the 1943 case Murdock v. Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that "no state shall convert a liberty into a license and charge a fee therefore."
Murdock jurisprudence has been hollowed out by 70-plus years of conflicting case law, most notably decisions that have found significant limitations on Second Amendment rights to be constitutional.
What's interesting about the hunting and fishing amendment is that, if passed, the language of the newly recognized right would limit itself by making Tar Heels' ability to hunt and fish subject to statute and rule, both of which are subordinate to the state constitution.
The constitution is supposed to limit lawmakers' leeway, not give them unlimited discretion.
Folks can vote for the hunting and fishing amendment if it makes them feel better, but the language it contains makes the "right" to hunt and fish all but meaningless. Perhaps its Republican sponsors are more keen on big government than they're letting on, and the appeal to liberty is little more than a clever marketing trick.