Deer seen on Shelter Island in April. The state Court...

Deer seen on Shelter Island in April. The state Court of Appeals has ruled that a bow is not a firearm and can be used to hunt deer.   Credit: Gordon M. Grant

A bow is not a firearm, New York State’s top court on Thursday told the Town of Smithtown, undermining one basis for the town’s regulation of deer hunting within its borders.

The ruling, in a two-page memorandum from the state’s Court of Appeals with six of seven judges concurring, stems from a 2017 suit against the town by an East Quogue bow hunters advocacy group, Hunters For Deer. The group sued over an ordinance that effectively banned discharge not just of guns but also slingshots and bows within much of the town, lumping all the weapons together in the firearm category.

The court’s memorandum upholding a lower court's 2020 decision focused on a provision of state municipal law that authorizes about 20 towns throughout the state — including Smithtown and most other Suffolk County towns — to adopt firearms discharge regulations that are more restrictive than state law. While the law does not define the word firearm, that word is not usually understood to include bows, the judges found. "We are unpersuaded that the Legislature intended otherwise when it used the term," they wrote. The state law "does not authorize Smithtown to regulate the discharge of bows."

In a footnote, though, the judges noted they were not ruling on a broader question of whether a town can regulate setback distances for bows as part of its public safety efforts or whether state Environmental Conservation Law preempts regulation.

Hunters for Deer lawyer Christian Killoran called the decision "the most significant hunters’ rights-property rights decision in New York history…Local municipalities like Smithtown can no longer seek to restrain the rights of hunters as afforded to them by state law. It is also a victory for property owners."

Smithtown officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. State Department of Environmental Conservation officials who regulate hunting and manage wild animal populations said the agency was "pleased with the result."

Dozens of municipalities on Long Island and elsewhere with regulations similar to Smithtown’s must amend them, but the ruling will not lead to unfettered bow hunting in suburbia, Killoran said. Hunters must still abide by state restrictions on season, licensing and other matters, and state setback requirements of 150 feet for bows and 250 feet for crossbows still apply.

In coming months, "What we’re going to see is a lot of letters going out to the …municipalities that purport to prohibit hunting or discharge of a bow beyond what state law already provides," said Gary Kalbaugh, a special professor of law at Hofstra University Maurice A. Deane School of Law who has researched hunting restrictions and wrote a 2015 law review article questioning the basis for much local regulation. The state’s hunting regulations are among the strictest in the nation, he said, with hunting prohibited in most areas with lots about 1.6 acres or smaller because of setback considerations.

Richard Klein, an emeritus professor at Touro Law Center, called the ruling a "narrow" decision that left a path for regulation of discharge of both bows and guns as a public safety concern.

Huntington Station man pulled from pool … Knicks lose Game 7 … School budget preview Credit: Newsday

Cops back at Heuermann home ... Huntington Station man pulled from pool ... Cohen to testify at Trump trial ... Summer attractions

Huntington Station man pulled from pool … Knicks lose Game 7 … School budget preview Credit: Newsday

Cops back at Heuermann home ... Huntington Station man pulled from pool ... Cohen to testify at Trump trial ... Summer attractions

Latest videos

SUBSCRIBE

Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME