« Return to this article

Know the West

An upside to the gun-buying frenzy


The last five years have been quite nice for the firearm industry. Gun and ammunition makers had a bonanza in 2009, thanks to fears that a newly-elected President Obama would sent out jackbooted, United Nations thugs in black helicopters to steal their guns (and maybe build bike paths, too!). It didn’t happen, of course. Yet that didn’t stop people from rushing out and fortifying their arsenals again after mass shootings in 2011 (Tucson) and 2012 (Aurora and Newtown). Gun sale background checks peaked in the weeks following the Newtown shooting, consistently reaching the highest levels since 1999.

The losers -- aside from a society now more awash in killing tools -- are the pocketbooks of those who were duped into going on a gun-buying frenzy. The winners, of course, are the firearm corporations, who pulled in money hand over fist, even during the recession. Freedom Group, the gun conglomerate that makes Bushmaster AR-15s, the gun used in the Newtown shooting, had a banner year in 2009 [PDF]. They were on pace for an even better one in 2012, but haven’t released fourth quarter or annual earnings reports.

Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation.

There’s another, somewhat unexpected winner in this paroxysm of gunpowder capitalism, however: Wildlife and the landscapes on which they depend. Every time a pistol, rifle, shell or cartridge is sold at the wholesale level, it is taxed (archery equipment is also included). And the proceeds from the tax go to the Wildlife Restoration Fund, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Earlier this month, the Congressional Research Service released a report [PDF] on the fund and the effects recent gun sales have had on it. It’s been a very good string of years. In 2009, total revenue to the fund -- which was created by the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 -- was nearly $500 million. That’s about twice what the fund was receiving annually in the 1990s and early Aughts. And then, in 2012, revenues were a whopping $550 million or so. The report predicts an even rosier future.

Source: Congressional Research Service

Of that half a billion figure, around $80 million will go to a variety of hunter education programs and projects. The rest goes to wildlife restoration projects. The cash is apportioned to the states based on amount of land, number of hunting license holders and the like. The West ends up doing quite well. The 11 states in HCN’s coverage area collectively ended up with about $100 million in 2010.

The projects funded by the tax have been credited with bringing game animals back from the brink. When the P-R Act was passed, Colorado had a mere seven-day elk hunting season because the animals numbered in the hundreds; these days, hunters bag tens of thousands of elk in the state each year. But the projects don’t just focus on game species: They can range from improving endangered cutthroat trout fisheries in Nevada, to surveying the flora and fauna of tribal land in Southern California. And, of course, when you bolster deer or elk numbers, it’s good for predators like mountain lions and wolves.

It’s a tax that even a conservative can love (the NRA rose a ruckus when it found out the P-R fund would be a victim of the sequester, losing approximately $21 million this year). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service touts the P-R program as a user pay/user benefit tax. That may have been true once upon a time, when hunters were the ones buying most of the guns. But hunter numbers peaked back in 1982, and have been in a slow decline ever since (as have the number of gun owners). Gun sales also plateaued for years, but started climbing again in 2006, even before the recent paranoia-inspired spikes. Clearly, hunters aren’t the only ones buying the guns, or paying those taxes.

But that's just fine. In our book there's absolutely nothing wrong with redistributing wealth from the pockets of gun fanatics to the wildlands of the West.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.