The run on guns and ammunition that began with President Barack Obama’s election and intensified after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has created a windfall for state wildlife programs in North Carolina.
Receipts from a federal excise tax that dates back to the Great Depression have soared, pumping millions into wildlife research, game land projects and hunter education in North Carolina and other states.
The state received $19.9 million from the firearms and ammunition tax this year, more than three times as much as it did in 2007. State wildlife officials say the extra money has made up for cuts in state funding and allowed them to take on new projects, including construction of parking lots, roads, new signs and boundary markers on some of the 2 million acres of game lands managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
“A lot of this work we haven’t been able to do because of a lack of funds,” said Erik Christofferson, head of the engineering and lands management division for the commission. “We’ve been able to put this money back on the ground for the public to enjoy.”
The excise tax on guns and ammunition dates back to 1937, when Congress passed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, better known as the Pittman-Robertson Act after its main sponsors. The law was aimed at restoring game and other wildlife and had the strong support of hunters and the firearms industry.
Much of the Pittman-Robertson money that has flowed to North Carolina in recent years has gone for projects that directly benefit those who pay the excise tax. The state, which historically operated only one public shooting range, will soon have four – with three more on the way.
“All the national surveys show a 20 percent increase in target shooting across the nation,” Christofferson said. “So there’s an increased need for safe facilities across the state, and we’re trying to build these places to meet that need.”
At the same time, people who have never fired guns also use state game lands for hiking and other recreation. They’ll benefit, too, from the new parking lots and refurbished roads.
And much of the money goes to programs that have a broader focus on wildlife. Pittman-Robertson funds are underwriting biologists and paying for studies on subjects such as songbirds, flying squirrels, eagles and the habits of black bears in the Asheville area.
“It is pretty neat how the benefits go far beyond the traditional users,” said Craig R. LeSchack, regional director for conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited, a national group that has more than 25,000 members in North Carolina. “Things that a lot of people enjoy – bird-watching, hiking – a lot of it has been accomplished by the Pittman-Robertson Act.”
Wild turkey restoration
North Carolina has received more than $194 million through Pittman-Robertson since the 1930s. Fans of the program say that over the decades the money has helped restore depleted populations of wildlife such as wild turkeys. The state re-introduced the birds to areas where they had disappeared, and the estimated population has grown from about 2,000 in 1970 to more than 260,000 today.
The Pittman-Robertson excise tax adds 10 percent to the cost of a handgun and 11 percent to other firearms and ammunition. The income generated by the tax has waxed and waned over the years. Changes in the economy and consumer taste affect demand and buying habits.
But politics and fears about gun control also play a big role in sales of firearms, and the spike in recent years has been particularly dramatic, said Brad Gunn, who coordinates Pittman-Robertson money for the Wildlife Resources Commission. In the first full fiscal year after the Sandy Hook shootings in December 2012 and the subsequent calls for greater gun control, North Carolina’s Pittman-Robertson receipts rose 46 percent.
“Most of it was political concerns that appeared to drive demand,” Gunn said. “And once demand picked up, it created shortages that seem to just keep feeding on itself.”
‘It won’t last’
Wildlife Resources Commission officials understand that the bonanza won’t continue indefinitely, as political and social changes cause gun and ammo sales to cool off.
“I can assure you it won’t last,” Gunn said. “Unless gun and ammunition issues become an issue in the next presidential race.”
Through the third quarter of this federal fiscal year, income from Pittman-Robertson remains above 2013 levels, according to Laury Parramore, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in northern Virginia.
But, Parramore said, “Our discussions with IRS indicate there will be a leveling off and drop of the receipts soon, based upon their collection numbers.”
North Carolina wildlife officials say they’re ready. Much of the research and construction they’re doing with the windfall will have lasting value, they say, even if they have to cut back in coming years.
“It will probably mean that we’ll be spending more money on the have-to things and a little less on the it-would-be-nice things,” Gunn said. “That’s not unusual.”