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Wildlife Conservation Funding Benefits from the Surge in Gun and Ammo Sales

New gun owners have turbo-charged the firearms industry while generating extra money for wildlife habitat and hunter recruitment.

We’re more than 10 months into the largest civilian firearms and ammunition buying surge in American history. More than 8 million people bought a firearm for the first time last year and ammunition from .22LR to .300 Win. Mag. is sold out at stores across the country and back-ordered for months. When the surge will end is uncertain, but here’s one thing that’s absolute: This will all lead to a boom in conservation and wildlife funding in 2021, and beyond.

And this is probably the greatest untold story of the great gun-buying year of 2020. For every sporting arm and box of ammunition sold, there’s an 11 percent excise tax applied that funds wildlife and habitat conservation initiatives (the tax is also applied to archery equipment). There’s a similar 10 percent excise tax on all handgun sales. Those excise tax dollars are distributed to states specifically for conservation work, hunter education and recruitment, shooting ranges, and wildlife research. In short, the more guns and ammo that get sold, the more available money there will be for conservation work.

This is all thanks to the decades-old Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, or as it’s better know, the Pittman-Robertson Act, which very well might be entering its glory days. With state governments rattled by budget shortfalls due to COVID-19 and colleges across the country slashing budgets, an injection of cash dedicated to habitat conservation and wildlife research could be more critical than ever. Plus, all those millions of new gun owners are going to need places to shoot and state agencies are trying to capitalize on a renewed interest in hunting to sell more hunting licenses. Pittman-Robertson funding will help with all of that, especially if Americans continue to buy more guns and ammo.

How Gun Sales Create Wildlife Funding

Back in 1937, Democrats Key Pittman and Absalom Willis Robertson wrote a bill that diverted an existing 11 percent excise tax on firearms to the Secretary of the Interior to be distributed to individual states. At the time, those tax dollars had been going to the Treasury. America’s wildlife was struggling to rebound from the population crashes of the late 1800s that came from market hunting and habitat devastation. Legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold had just published his landmark textbook, “Game Management,” and Americans were beginning to understand the nuances of actively managing habitat and wildlife.

By 1939, the Pittman-Robertson Act had generated $890,000 in Wildlife Restoration apportionment. I wonder if old Key and Absalom had any idea how their legislation would grow to become a cornerstone of American conservation.

In the last decade, gun sales in America have skyrocketed. There were approximately 144 million firearms background checks conducted by the FBI (the closest measurement we have for tracking potential firearm sales) in the last 10 years, according to National Shooting Sports Foundation data. That’s a 79 percent increase from the previous decade (approximately 80 million background checks, according to the NSSF). November 2020 marked an all-time high in firearm background checks at 1,949,141, only to be surpassed by the 2,052,130 checks in January 2021, according to NSSF data. (The NSSF excludes counts of concealed-carry permit checks and rechecks that are included in the FBI data, to provide a more accurate picture of potential firearm sales.)

Ammo sales are harder to track, but the shortages in 2013 and last year prove that consumers are buying up more ammunition than manufacturers can produce.

That surge in buying has created a surge in Pittman-Robertson funding. Since 1939, the act has generated a total of $12.8 billion in Wildlife Restoration apportionment. About half of that funding ($6.4 billion) has come in the last 10 years. In other words, American shooters and hunters have generated as many P-R dollars in the last 10 years of gun and ammo buying as they have in the previous 72 years (when not adjusting for inflation).

A map showing two of the factors that contribute to Pittman-Robertson fund allocations, including states’ geographic area and licensed hunters. Texas has received more P-R federal aid than any other state ($594 million) because of it’s size and more than one million licensed hunters.USFWS

Technically, manufacturers pay the excise tax. But broadly speaking, the tax is factored into the cost of products, which are ultimately paid for by the consumer. P-R funds are distributed to the states through a formula that factors in a state’s population, geographic size, and the number of licensed hunters. States must match the incoming wildlife restoration money with $1 for every $3 they receive in federal aid. That state money usually comes from license revenues, but it can also come from a state’s general fund, universities conducting wildlife research, or even non-profit groups.

So while the recent surge in gun and ammo buying has been mostly spurred by shooters and gun owners concerned with personal defense, states need healthy hunter numbers in order to actually receive the available P-R dollars. And many states across the country saw an increase in hunting license sales last year due to COVID-19.

“What’s At Stake In Future Elections?

Nothing short of the Second Amendment,” Larry Keane, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, told us back in October. “Vice President Biden and Senator Harris have been clear—along with Senator Schumer—that they will ban modern sporting rifles, ban standard-size magazines, they’ll confiscate lawfully-purchased firearms, pursue gun registration, and they’ll pass universal background checks. We’re very concerned. We think this is the most important election for sportsmen in our lives.”

But in 2020, the extreme growth in the firearms sales transcended party lines. Concern over an uncertain future created new gun owners outside of the stereotypical demographic: white, middle-aged, conservative males. This was such a trend that New York Magazine and The New York Times both ran feature stories about how more liberals, women, and people of color are becoming first-time gun owners.

Concern over an uncertain future has created new gun owners outside of the stereotypical demographic of white, middle-aged, conservative males.

“We’re seeing more diversity in firearms ownership,” says Chris Dolnak, senior vice president and CMO of the NSSF. “While 56 percent of gun owners in America are white, nine percent of gun owners are African American males, five percent are African American females. The National African American Gun Association has seen a 15 percent increase in membership last year. They’re adding something like more than 1,000 new members a month.”

Whether these new gun owners know it or not, they’re all contributing money to conservation by boosting firearms and ammo sales. When combined with the increase in hunting license sales, we’re at a critical moment in conservation funding.

“It’s like you’ve got two waves that are meeting, and we’re going to get a super wave next year,” Bronson says. “You’ve got these big P-R dollars coming and you’re going to have these big pots of money from hunting and fishing license sales increases. For awhile these agencies might feel pretty flush with cash and might be able to do some cool things in the next couple years. But it’s all cyclical.”

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