The National Rifle Association, though founded as a club for ex-military marksmen, now makes quite clear that it represents another true-blue American constituency: hunters. It's got a whole magazine for hunting, features hunting prominently on its website, and argues that stricter gun laws would simply kibosh a father's ability to take little Jimmy out shooting quail. It's good cover: Politicians, too, tend to talk about not wanting to inhibit an activity so essential to the nation's founding mythology.
Don’t be fooled. The NRA has never cared much about the things that truly matter to hunters.
Take environmental conservation, for example. The biggest factors cited for the long decline in hunting licenses—which, along with a tax on the sale of firearms, provide a dedicated funding stream for conservation efforts—are urbanization and the loss of wildlife habitat. The NRA, however, has been largely absent in the big fights to preserve dwindling wilderness, saying simply that more guns equal more conservation funding.
Here's what the NRA does fight for: The freedom to buy assault weapons—which the group instead refers to as "modern sporting rifles," and are sometimes referred to as "black guns"—and high-capacity magazines, neither of which are commonly used in hunting, but which comprise the lion's share of revenue for gun manufacturers. It even opposes universal background checks, which a large majority of Americans support (and the NRA itself did in 1999).
Some hunters fear the NRA’s hard-line stance is starting to give their sport a bad name.1 "We have to deal with this black cloud, because people who don't like these black rifles are starting to equate, 'those are all hunters, people who are banging around with 30-round magazines,'" says John Cooper, a former secretary of the South Dakota Department of Fish, Game, and Parks. "And that couldn't be further from the truth."
Over the past year, rumblings of discontent with the NRA have surfaced. Hunters have published op-eds in papers big and small calling for a more moderate alternative—some group that could advocate for responsible gun owners, while working towards practical solutions for preventing horrific violence like the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Last week, hunting buddies Rep. John Dingell and former Secretary of State James Baker appealed for a middle way.
Moderate hunting groups do exist, of course. Thus far, however, they've largely stayed out of the Second Amendment debate, fearing retribution from a lobby that—while less powerful than it's been made out to be—still brooks little dissent. Few of these organizations were willing to even talk about gun control on the record.
"Our community has never felt comfortable wading in there," says an executive with a conservation-oriented hunting group who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly about the NRA. "They are so ruthless, and carry such a big hammer, that very few in our community are willing to get in there and risk their wrath."
With the NRA seeming more extreme every week, the question becomes: At what point does standing with the NRA become riskier than speaking out against it?
To understand why it's been so difficult to develop an alternative voice for gun rights, consider that the universe of organizations that advocate for hunters exists on a spectrum. On one end, you've got conservation groups like the venerable Izaak Walton League, which was founded by anglers and retains hunting as part of its DNA, but never talks about guns. On the other, there are groups like the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance and the Safari Club, which advocate for the right to hunt on all public lands using potentially harmful types of ammunition. They'll happily close ranks with the NRA whenever Washington starts making noises about gun control.
"Our main focus isn't modern-style firearms, but obviously we support the ability of people to own firearms, and that won't change," says the Sportsmen's Alliance's vice president of marketing, Doug Jeanneret. "No one should be commenting other than we are pro-gun and we don't want our rights to be infringed upon."
In the vast middle, there are what are known as "critter groups," which represent game animals like pheasants, white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, turkeys, ducks, and ruffed grouse. They're serious about conservation, but tend to advocate for whatever habitat matters most for their target of choice—which hasn't done much for hunter solidarity.
"Part of the NRA's success is that any attack on any gun law anywhere is an attack on everybody," says Whit Fosburgh, director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "I wish we had that fealty. If there's a mule deer problem, it's not a trout problem. Oil and gas development in the west is bad for sage grouse, but it's not a duck problem. So the conservation community dies a death by a thousand cuts."
For any individual critter group, there's little upside to staking out a position on gun rights. They're typically responsible to their members, many of whom are also members of the NRA. Some hunters do use AR-type weapons, for target practice if not shooting animals, and might get miffed if an organization's president refused to defend those guns. Even those who are uncomfortable with some of the NRA's more extreme stances—like, for example, defending “cop-killer” bullets—figure that staking out extreme positions is an important negotiation tactic, ensuring that changes to gun laws end up protecting hunters’ interests.
"I consider the NRA to be a civil rights organization," said another conservation group staffer who asked not to be named. "Their job is to get over to that far edge and stay there. Their job is not to be middle of the road."Lots of hunters, the staffer said, just don't have an alternative. "They'd be happy if the NRA just went away, but there's not really anybody to replace them." 2
Some critter groups are also driven by the same force as the NRA: funding from the firearms industry. A couple weeks ago, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation joined the NRA and the nation's biggest gun sellers in boycotting the annual Eastern Sports and Outdoors Show after its British owner decided not to include AR-type weapons, out of respect for the victims of the Newtown shootings. I asked RMEF’s public relations director, Mark Holyoak, whether his members really needed the types of guns that would've been banned from the show.
"For elk hunting, no," Holyoak answers. "But there are many people who have those firearms and like to take them out to the shooting range and do what they do." Nonetheless, they usually stick to conservation—"We like to stay back in the bushes, and make sure those bushes are healthy," he says—unless a key revenue stream depends on defending the companies that pay its bills. "We rely on the outdoor industry, because that's how we exist," Holyoak says. "Our funds do come from somewhere." 3
Despite the obstacles, there may finally be some movement toward hunter-centric gun rights advocacy. This latest round of negotiations, in which Vice President Joe Biden invited a wide range of organizations to participate, created an opening for groups that usually outsource their advocacy to the NRA. Among them was the Colorado-based Bull Moose Sportsmen's Alliance, which Gaspar Perricone founded a couple years ago to serve as the hunter's voice in Washington.
"In the wake of past strategies, we've felt stigmatized, and we've withdrawn from the debate," Perricone says. "There's a relatively strong cultural divide in America between gun owners and non–gun owners. All gun owners are lumped into the same community. The sportsmen's community is probably a little different in that we are first and foremost wildlife and conservation advocates."
Perricone dodges questions about how his group differs from the NRA, but he also doesn’t interpret the Second Amendment in absolute terms. "It has been talked about previously as 'should or should we not own guns,'" Perricone says. In particular, he favors more widespread background checks. "People do kill people, but there's no sense in providing a loophole for the criminally insane."
Perricone is just one of many voices of reason and moderation in the hunting community. And Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive director, is just one man. But Perricone’s group has 4,500 members, while the NRA has added 500,000 members since Newtown alone, bringing membership to 4.5 million. With a flock that large, LaPierre has the power to drown out 1,000 Perricones.
Then again, 13.7 million people went hunting in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available. Suddenly, the NRA’s 4.5 million members don’t seem as imposing. For every hunter who might quit, say, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for taking a stand against the NRA’s extremism, there are dozens more who might become members for that very reason. And the more groups that speak out, the more the media and Capitol Hill will pay attention to the legions of hunters whom LaPierre doesn’t represent.
A recent study commissioned by the National Shooting Sports Foundation found that public approval of hunting had declined from 78 percent in 2006 to 74 percent in 2011.
On people not feeling represented by Wayne LaPierre, he also said this: "Al Sharpton can be the face of black America, and the African Americans I know have nothing in common with Al Sharpton."
It's always a good idea to see where a group's money comes from. The Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, another staunch defender of gun rights, lists oil and gas companies, the tobacco industry, and car companies among its sponsors.