by Walter Brasch
The Pennsylvania Senate, possibly for the first time in its history, stood up against the NRA leadership and extreme gun-rights groups, and voted to ban pigeon shoots. The senators correctly called the ban a matter not of gun rights but of eliminating animal cruelty.
The International Olympic Committee in 1900 banned pigeon shoots because of their cruelty and never again listed it as a sport. Most hunters and the state’s Fish and Game Commission says that pigeon shoots are not “fair chase hunting.” Pennsylvania is the only state where there are active pigeon shoots.
The vote in the Senate was 36–12. Voting for the bill were 21 Democrats and 15 Republicans. Before the Senate could vote on the bill, it had to vote down two NRA-sponsored “compromise” amendments to legislate pigeon shoots and place them under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
The bill had originated in the House, sponsored by John Maher (R-Upper St. Clair), where it had unanimous approval as a ban upon slaughtering, selling, and eating cat and dog meat. Sen. Richard Alloway (R-Chambersburg), an avid hunter, amended the bill in the Senate to include pigeon shoots, and received the backing of Sens. Stuart Greenleaf (R-Willow Grove), chair of the judiciary committee; and Dominic Pileggi (R-Glen Mills), the majority leader.
That bill, with the amendment, was approved in the Judiciary Committee, 10–4, on June 26. In the next two days, it passed two of the required three readings in the full Senate, but was tabled, July 8, when the Senate recessed for more than two months. The bill was finally placed on the calendar for a third vote, which occurred late at night, Oct. 15, the day before the Senate would again recess until a week after the November election.
The Senate passed the bill only after an intense lobbying effort by the Institute for Legislative Action, NRA’s lobbying arm, which sent several “alerts” to its members. Allied with the ILA-NRA is the Pennsylvania Flyers Association (PAFA), a political gun-rights group, which, like the ILA-NRA, has a PAC that contributes campaign funds to members of the state legislature. PAFA had boasted it was responsible for keeping the bill off the Senate calendar. Both groups argue banning pigeon shoots is the first step to a “slippery slope” to banning guns, both have threatened members of the legislature with retribution if they voted to ban the bill, both claim support for banning pigeon shoots comes from radical “outside activists.”
Those radical “outside activists” are the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the Pennsylvania Federation of Humane Societies, the ASCPA, the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, and the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness), which has video-documented the brutality of the pigeon shoots, often in secret, for several years, blanketed major market TV the past month with commercials featuring narration by Bob Barker and video of animal cruelty. The HSUS has maintained a 25-year activist campaign, which included intensive discussions with members of the legislature, numerous information packets, a strong social media campaign that organized supporters, and thousands Pennsylvanians calling their representatives and senators.
The last free-standing vote in the House to ban pigeon shoots occurred in 1994. Although the vote was 99–93 to ban the shoots, a majority of 102 votes was required. Later bills were scuttled, usually by leadership of both political parties, most of them afraid of the suspected wrath of the NRA.
Four years after the House failed to pass legislation to ban pigeon shoots, the state Supreme Court ruled the Hegins Pigeon Shoot, the most notorious of the shoots, and one which drew national attention to the state, was not only cruel “but moronic.” The organizers grudgingly disbanded the annual Labor Day event, held from 1934 to 1998. The Hegins shoot was held on public land; the Court’s opinion did not extend to shoots at private clubs, all of which draw many of the participants and spectators from New Jersey, and are held in secret. The passage of HB 1750 will end pigeon shoots at private clubs.
The House reconvenes for one day, Monday, Oct. 20, before it again recesses, its members returning for only one day, Nov. 12, before the session ends.
Heidi Prescott, HSUS senior vice-president, spent many years on the shooting fields rescuing wounded birds, while leading protests and education campaigns. Exhausted from consecutive 15-hour days of intense discussions with legislators—and more than two decades of hope and disappointment—she mixes the joy of the present with tears of remembrance when she recalls why she first committed to eliminating what has become known as “Pennsylvania’s Disgrace”: “This is a day I personally looked forward to for many years, from the day I first held an injured pigeon in my hands and watched her die—all for no reason other than someone wanted to use her for target practice.”
If the House passes the bill, and Gov. Tom Corbett signs it, Prescott, who was born in Pennsylvania and received her B.A. and MFA from the state-owned Edinboro University, will no longer have to drive a four-hour round trip almost every Tuesday when the Legislature is in session from her office in Maryland to explain to legislators why animal cruelty never was and never will be protected by the Second Amendment, and why the courage to stand up for what is right may be the greatest virtue.
[Dr. Brasch has been covering pigeon shoots and state legislation for more than two decades. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the health, environmental, and economic effects, and the fusion of corporate greed and politics in the state.]