At the start of this post I will ask readers for a bit of patience with the narrative path I would like to take. I need to share a bit of history in order to arrive at the present day. The (brief) story I would like to tell is about wildlife conservation in the United States and I promise, it’s a happy tale.
Many Americans, living in a time of wildlife abundance today, do not understand how close we were to losing it all at the start of the 20th century. At that time, market hunters, who killed wild animals in great numbers for fur, feathers and meat, had hunted some species into extinction while others were in real danger of suffering the same fate. 20th century policy makers, among them giants like Teddy Roosevelt, saw a need to protect wildlife if it was going to be there for future generations. They began the process of rallying American sportsmen to the cause of conservation. By 1918, market hunting had been ended through a series of federal laws and the hunting of many species was outlawed. The damage was stopped, but restoration efforts would still take decades to reverse the damage already done. What was needed was the funding required to restore our natural resources.
Fast forward to 1937. In the middle of the Great Depression, American sportsmen came upon a solution to the much needed funding problem and supported passage of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, known by most hunters as Pittman-Robertson (the two men that sponsored the bill in the House and Senate). The bill diverted a pre-existing excise tax of roughly 11% on all firearms and ammunition to conservation and restoration efforts. At a time when many people would have liked to have had that money back in their own bank accounts, they instead chose to fund efforts that in many cases would not pay off until their grandchildren were in the woods. Today, nearly all of the money that goes to supporting wildlife in the United States comes from hunters and fishermen (the latter coming on-board with Dingle-Johnson in the 1950s). Every hiker, skier, canoeist, etc that marvels at the abundance of wildlife in our country today, is benefitting from money generated mostly from guns and ammunition. How much? The 2017 fiscal budget received $750 million dollars from Pittman-Robertson.
So how does all of this relate to gun control? Well, I could write thousands of words here about how proud I am to be part of the community of sportsmen and women that quite literally put our money where our mouth is when it comes to conservation. Likewise, I am proud to be part of a community that, in my anecdotal experience, is incredibly reasonable when it comes to guns. What I wish, though, is that we were more willing to talk about them.
In the last week, there has been a predictable response from many that it’s time for the NRA to get out of the way of new gun legislation. While I agree that the NRA has been obstructionist at times, they have also done an incredible amount of good. Gun safety and hunters’ education programs (the latter also funded by Pittman-Robertson) have both been made better by the involvement of the NRA. Likewise, at a time when the numbers of hunters and recreational shooters are declining, the NRA allows us to still have a powerful voice in the halls of Congress. For every high-profile piece of lobbying that draws the scorn of the anti-gun crowd, they are also quietly doing things that benefit responsible gun owners. So while we need to add other voices to the conversation, the NRA still deserves to be one of them.
At the same time, conservation groups that I tend to favor with my donations are doing the Lord’s work mostly outside of the public’s eye. Groups like Ducks Unlimited, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Quail Forever, National Turkey Federation, and a host of other groups are spending public monies and private donations on habitat and animal restoration while also advocating for hunting and fishing regulations that ensure these natural resources remain plentiful. These groups are also hosting programs that introduce new hunters to the sport, which includes gun education.
This is a point I have made in previous essays, but for so many of us in the hunting community, guns are not the focal point of our sport. We stray into conversations about guns frequently, but often we would rather talk about the 10-pointer we saw or the flock of ducks that came into our decoys on a string. And for many of us, our gun collections don’t look like the guns found at the scenes of high-profile mass shootings. There is more wood on our guns and less tech. Magazines, if visible at all, are small (hunting regulations usually limit ammo capacity). What’s also true is that we don’t buy ammo by the case because many of us rarely shoot targets. We put a few rounds through our rifle or shotgun before the season to make sure everything is in working order, and the rest remain un-fired until we are ready to bring home dinner.
You will often hear from sensible folks on the Left that they aren’t interested in taking guns from hunters. I believe that. But slippery slopes sometimes being a real thing, hunters still fear new gun regulations as the first step towards taking away our sport. At the same time, I think many of us also want to have a private talk with our friends who like those tactical rifles with the flash suppressors and 30-round magazines and tell them they aren’t doing any of us favors on social media. And if you don’t believe me, follow ten hunters and ten recreational shooters on Instagram and see who brings up the 2nd Amendment first. Better yet, count how many times they show an American flag in their feed. The hunter would rather share pictures of backstraps on the grill than wrap themselves up in Old Glory.
And for the record, why should hunters worry about the 2nd Amendment? The Left has already told us our pastime is safe and hunting is part of American culture…until it isn’t. Ask a golf pro at your local country club what their membership is like these days. Kids don’t play golf. Stores that sell golf equipment are struggling. Meanwhile, the numbers of hunters are also shrinking. And we know that guns are being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, even if there are more and more guns out there (over 300 million is the most popular estimate but no one really knows). As a hunter, it’s easy for me to be happy about this. Less competition on Opening Day and less trucks parked at the trailhead of my favorite public spots. But I also realize that means less allies and eventually, there will be a critical mass of people who have so little connection to guns or shooting sports that they will gladly sign away the right to gun ownership so they feel safer when they are at a concert. And I would understand it when they did because that story has repeated itself in American history over and over.
So what to do? It’s time for sportsmen to quit hiding from the gun conversation. We don’t have the luxury of sitting in a quiet corner of a bar and debating whether a .270 or .30-06 is the best caliber for whitetail (for the record, it’s the .270). We don’t get to point to our guns stored responsibly in a safe in the basement and say, “None of this is my fault.” It’s time for us to step up like our grandparents did in 1937 when they agreed to pay it forward so we would have an abundance of game in 2017. As Steven Rinella puts it, “We’re living in the good old days of hunting right now,” but if we don’t show a willingness to have difficult conversations, the legacy we may leave our children is the removal of firearms from our sport.
What I plan to urge my elected representatives to do is to invite sportsmen and women to the table. I want to see every major conservation group represented. At the same time, invite federal and state fish & wildlife departments, recreational shooters, ammunition manufacturers, firearm companies and yes, even the NRA. Everyone gets an equal seat and everyone gets heard.
I can tell you this today…a majority of Americans, many of whom are gun owners, believe it’s time to change our laws. Items like gun registration and ending the gun show loophole should be considered. We just need the right people, people who responsibly represent gun ownership, to talk to each other and show the rest of the country we understand their fears. And we have to resist the urge to talk down to them. Yes, many of them need to be educated, but we can do that respectfully. Outside of the spectacle of a public conversation, I would urge gun owners to calmly talk to their friends about guns when their friends give them the opportunity. And if you’re like me, you might even need to sit down with your spouse and address their concerns too. It’s the least we can do.
I for one welcome the conversation on guns in the coming weeks and months and I hope it has legs this time. It’s long overdue, and I have to believe, much like the folks who passed Pittman-Robertson 80 years ago, that we can find common ground.