When a mass shooting happens, gun control is discussed. When gun control is discussed, gun sales rise. And when gun sales rise, wildlife restoration gets more funding.
It’s the result of a 75-year-old tax that is embraced by hunters and conservationists alike. Yet it’s also problematic, since gun sales don’t necessarily correlate with conservation needs.
The tax is the product of the Pittman-Robertson Act, passed in 1937 to stop the rapid decline of wild animals like the wild turkey, black bear, and giant Canada goose. It called for a 10% tax on firearms and ammunition and was amended over the years to include pistols and revolvers, bows and arrows, and finally in 1984, crossbow arrows.
The tax is heralded for saving any number of species, and all through what is rather euphemistically called "user-generated funding." The idea is that through these taxes, hunters are maintaining the ecosystems in which they hunt.
The only problem with that logic is that more gun and ammo sales aren’t the same things as more hunting. In fact, the story there seems to be quite the reverse. Writing in 2010, Wildlife Management Institute President Steve Williams noted: "The decline in the number of certified paid hunting license holders—down 14 percent over the last 30 years—does not bode well for the future funding of conservation."
Those numbers have bounced slightly since, but they still don’t match up with Pittman-Robertson receipts, which have marched steadily upwards. In recent years, a big boost came in pistols—not the best weapon for taking down a deer.
What is certain is that events having nothing to do with hunting are able to impact this stream of funding. As a recent Congressional Research Service report notes:
"The increase in sales of guns and related items in the months before the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, in the months before the elections of 2008 and 2012, and during the current debate over gun rights and gun violence have all benefited wildlife conservation via the P-R program."
Conservationists are happy to have more money for conservation, and hunters are happy to take credit for saving the black bear. And so, as the report goes on to point out: "The P-R program has been relatively noncontroversial through much of its 75-year history."
Still, there are groups working to make wildlife restoration funding less dependent on human events. Teaming with Wildlife is seeking to amend Pittman-Robertson to add a "permanent, stable funding source for the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program," according to their website.