Gun run infuses money into wildlife conservation

For a multitude of reasons, there is a bull market for firearms, ammunition and reloading supplies.

According to a recent article written by Douglas McIntyre published in “24/7 Wall St.,” Americans bought more than 4.1 million firearms in January, a 60% increase from December. Total gun sales in 2020 were nearly 39.7 million, itself a 40% increase from 2019.

Arkansas ranked 28th in gun sales in 2020, with 293,123 units sold through November.

The article cited the civil unrest of summer 2020 as being a primary catalyst for the run on guns. Since 1992, gun sales spike whenever a Democrat is elected president over fears that person will ban gun ownership, impose prohibitive tax rates on firearms, sue the firearms industry into extinction or outlaw certain types of firearms, as the Brady Gun Bill was purported to do. This amuses me because the Brady Gun Bill exempted virtually every sporting firearm in existence, such as the Browning Automatic Rifle, all of Remington’s semi-automatics, all of Marlin’s semi-automatics, and so on. It did, on the other hand, eliminate the 20-round magazine that was once available for the Remington 742, which made it a potential battle rifle.

An exception was 2016 when Donald Trump was elected. Gun sales topped 25 million, but that was an anomaly because everybody expected Hillary Clinton to win that election.

As during much of the Obama administration, ammunition is very hard to find right now, as are gunpowder, bullets and primers for reloading. An unusual development is the scarcity of reloading dies, which parallels the component scarcity.

The bull market in firearms represents a huge windfall to America’s wildlife. Through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 (the Pittman-Robertson Act), the federal government collects an 11% federal excise tax on retail sales of firearms, ammunition, optics, bows, crossbows and arrows.

The firearms industry predicts that gun sales will reach at least 50 million in 2021. Figuring an arbitrary average of $900 per sale, that amounts to $4.5 billion in Pittman-Robertson funds, not counting archery sales.

The Department of the Interior distributes that money back to the states on a formula that factors the number of hunting licenses sold within a particular state along with the state’s physical size. The money funds up to 75% of approved projects, such as buying a new wildlife management area, adding to an existing wildlife management area and some research projects. It helps pay for shooting ranges and hunter education programs. It cannot be used for an agency’s regular operations, including payroll and benefits.

A sister law, the Federal Aid in Sportfish Restoration Act, does the same thing for fisheries. After hunting and fishing license sales, those taxes are the most important funding sources for some state game and fish agencies.

Arkansas is a middle-size state that sells a lot of hunting licenses, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission staff is highly attuned to tapping federal funding opportunities, so it gets a lot of Pittman-Robertson money. States such as Delaware, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire get very little.

As a public information officer for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation from 1998-2000, I was drilled into mentioning Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration (or Federal Aid in Sportfish Restoration) in everything I wrote. This enabled the cash-strapped agency to get federal funding to reimburse a percentage of whatever project it was, including the weekly news release.

I continued that practice in 2000 when I moved to the Missouri Department of Conservation, which is the sole beneficiary of a statewide one-eighth percent sales tax. Arkansas has a similar tax that it shares with three other state agencies, including State Parks. The Game and Fish Commission gets 40%, but since Arkansas is a smaller state with a smaller economy, our conservation sales tax generates less money.

Money was not an issue whatsoever with the MDC. Our division chief asked me, “What is your deal with this federal aid obsession of yours?” When I explained it, she looked at me blankly and said, “We don’t care about that!” Our poor federal aid coordinator, whose office was across the hall from mine, was lonelier than the Maytag repairman.

Whatever madness is driving the irrational run on firearms is inconvenient for hunters and shooters, but it should be very good for wildlife. It represents a rich opportunity for the commission to invest in habitat for bobwhite quail, wild turkeys and other native wildlife.