Hunters, Guns, and Money: Firearms Boom Sparks a Boon for Wildlife

by Ben, Schreckinger, National Journal  |  published on March 22, 2013

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And, it seems, what’s good for the gun industry is good for the goose. Through a federal excise tax on guns and ammunition, the booming industry is providing a nine-figure windfall to state conservation programs, according to a Congressional Research Service report issued this month.

The Wildlife Restoration Program, prescribed by the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, distributes excise-tax revenues collected in the previous year to state wildlife agencies. The money goes toward programs for hunter training and wildlife conservation, paying for the upkeep of nature preserves, and providing capital to buy and protect new parcels of undeveloped land. Funds distributed by the program, which also draw on a tax on archery equipment, are expected to rise 38 percent this year to $534 million, up from $388 million in 2012, according to the report. That total, though, does not account for sequestration, which could shave $21 million from this year’s disbursements.

Much of the uptick in gun-buying appears motivated by long-simmering fears that the Obama administration will institute tough gun-control measures. Revenues from the 10 to 11 percent firearms tax jumped 45 percent in fiscal 2009, which began just before his election.

The trend shows no sign of abating. Revenues from the excise tax were up an additional 40 percent in the first quarter of 2013 over the same period last year. And the revenue bump could get even bigger. According to Jane Gravelle, senior specialist in economic policy at CRS and coauthor of the study, the reported numbers do not yet reflect the surge in gun and ammunition purchases since the Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. That’s because the tax is paid by manufacturers, who would not have felt the effects of the buying spree before the close of the fiscal quarter at the end of 2012.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for wildlife conservation. Both for game species and for nongame species,” Steve Williams, president of the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said of the phenomenon. But Williams warns that state agencies shouldn’t build the new revenues into their budgets. “They’ve got to be careful to pick projects that will have conservation impact that will be sustainable,” he said.

Wayne MacCallum, director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, is not counting on having the extra revenue forever. In fact, he believes the gun industry, and the tax revenues it generates, will go bust after the boom. “I think it’s a reality. There’s only a finite amount of anything that anyone can purchase,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t expect it to be any different for firearms.”

Grants from the program are distributed according to a state’s landmass and number of licensed hunters, and Massachusetts’ share is small. MacCallum estimated the uptick has provided an extra $1.5 million a year, which the agency has put toward “a very aggressive land-acquisition program.”

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