November 07, 2022
By Dr. Dave Samuel
Since the Pittman-Robertson Act (PR) was passed in 1937, excise taxes on guns, ammunition, and archery equipment have raised billions of dollars for wildlife conservation, hunter education, and wildlife management at the state level.
Specifically, these “PR” excise taxes pay for hunter education and safety programs, acquisition and improvement of wildlife habitat, research into wildlife problems, surveys and inventories of wildlife problems, acquisition and development of access facilities for public use, and other game-agency activities. It’s safe to say that if state wildlife agencies lost those funds, much of what they do for all wildlife would be substantially reduced, and many jobs would be lost. Relative to guns, the original tax in 1937 was 10 percent on firearms, but it excluded pistols, revolvers, and ammunition. Later, the tax was increased to 11 percent. And in 1970, it was amended to add a 10-percent tax on pistols and revolvers.
This excise-tax link between federal legislation and conservation has come under increased political scrutiny in recent years, as gun sales have soared. The 22.6-million guns sold in 2020 is more than triple the number sold in 2000, and as you know, the vast majority of these new gun sales are not used for hunting.
However, the increased excise-tax revenues continue to flow to our state wildlife agencies. In 2020, that tax totaled $750 million, and in 2021 the total raised was $679 million. That growing pot of money has not gone unnoticed by politicians, who have also realized that the original “user-pay” model for taxing guns is no longer valid because most guns being purchased these days are not being used for hunting.
Nevertheless, as the yearly amount given to states increased, the state wildlife agencies have increased their conservation activities and hired new employees. A second factor is important to consider: The number of hunters is not increasing, and this means that equipment sales are also relatively flat. Because gun sales to nonhunters have increased, the impacts of stable or reduced hunter numbers is not impacting funds going to state wildlife agencies like they should.
Since work done by state wildlife agencies also benefits non-game species, there have been ongoing efforts to come up with ways to get nonhunters to contribute to non-game management. Using a “user-pay” model, various proposals were made to impose excise taxes on equipment used by nonhunters as they enjoy wildlife. Efforts to get manufacturers of binoculars (used by birders) and other such equipment have not been popular with manufacturers and have failed. State wildlife agencies have had to pick up the slack as a result, and are now forced to manage both game and non-game species.
As an aside, let me note that the same “user-pay” model generated by the PR Act is also used in fisheries management, via the Dingell-Johnson Act (DJ), which imposes excise taxes on fishing tackle and boating equipment. Indeed, all these factors are now entangled as PR funds have dramatically increased.
What brought my attention to this situation was a paper written by professors at Texas A&M and Ohio State University. This paper (“Violent Entanglements: The Pittman-Robertson Act, Firearms, And The Financing Of Conservation”) was just published in Conservation and Society 20(1): 24-35, 2022), and it outlines the history of this situation. It notes that the original PR model was “user-pay,” but that has now changed. Nonhunting citizens are now buying the vast majority of guns and ammunition. Additionally, they note that there are now, “ethical concerns produced by this emerging relationship and the ways Pittman-Robertson entangles conservation with guns and violence.”
Do you see the problem here? Conservation funding is being increasingly decoupled from the practice of hunting. Additionally, wildlife is becoming more important to nonhunters (and hunters are a “shrinking share” in this respect). They also note that hunters are a smaller share of firearms users.
Because of this situation, the authors of said paper raised three ethical questions: Should conservation depend upon and benefit from the sale of something associated with violence and the loss of human life? Should conservation continue to facilitate gun-use for nonhunting purposes? Should a small minority of those who benefit from wildlife (hunters) continue to have disproportionate influence on conservation policy?
As PR funds grow because of nonhunters buying guns, there will be modifications to PR funding. For example, in the 2019 appropriations bill, the text of PR was modified to include “recreational shooter and recreational shooting” in several places, thus “broadening the set of gun users eligible to benefit from PR funds.”
With all this change, it should not be a surprise that there have been several recent bills to amend the PR Act. One would make supplemental funds available for management of endangered species — supposedly accelerating efforts toward endangered species. This bill is complicated and far from passage, but it shows the trend in political views concerning the PR Act.
A more recent bill (H.R. 8167), was introduced by Rep. Andrew Clyde from Georgia. It would repeal excise taxes on firearms and ammunition, as well as repealing certain DJ taxes on fishing rods and boat motors. Clyde’s bill would replace these lost excise taxes by redirecting unallocated lease revenue generated by offshore/onshore energy development on federal lands. Those dollars presently go into general revenue, and are used to fund a number of needs.
To say that this alternative is tenuous and unpredictable is an understatement. Use of lease revenues could change in a heartbeat, leaving politicians to decide whether to allocate funds for wildlife and fisheries to the states. And such decisions would have to be granted every year. No guarantees here. In fact, because of the Biden Administration’s push on climate change, the number of acres offered for lease to energy development in April has been reduced by 80 percent. What will politicians do with these reduced lease revenues that go into the general revenues? State wildlife agencies could get nothing.
Even though there are 53 cosponsors of the Clyde bill, and with all the changes in gun purchasing in recent years and with the negatives now associated with shootings and gun violence, the Clyde bill probably won’t pass. However, the signs of change are on the horizon, and PR and DJ revenues will continue to come under further scrutiny.