Because the NRA gives so much money to conservation through an excise tax, some hunters are reluctant to criticize it.Karen Bleier / AFP / Getty Images
Like many hunters and conservationists, Lane has been monitoring energy development in Montana and other Western states, and he’s been tracking the money lawmakers are getting from the NRA and the oil-and-gas industry. Corporate interests are holding greater sway over the habitat of game animals than conservationists pushing to preserve their environment, he says.
There are others who agree, although not all of them are as open in their criticism of the NRA as Lane. In commenting for this story, several hunters asked to remain anonymous. Others decided at the last minute not to participate. The NRA, they argue, can be vindictive. They point to the example of Jim Zumbo.
In 2007, Zumbo, a respected hunting journalist, suggested in a column that semiautomatic weapons were not appropriate for hunting and that game departments should ban them. "Excuse me, maybe I'm a traditionalist, but I see no place for these weapons among our hunting fraternity," he wrote in his column for Outdoor Life magazine. "I'll go so far as to call them 'terrorist' rifles ... We don't need to be lumped into the group of people who terrorize the world with them."
The response was swift.
He left the magazine, which apologized for his comments and took the post down. The NRA “pointed to the collapse of Zumbo’s career as an example of what can happen to anyone, including a ‘fellow gun owner,’ who challenges the right of Americans to own or hunt with assault-style firearms.”
But hunters say the differences persist. "We don't care about how many bullets go into a magazine," one said on condition of anonymity, referring to action by the NRA to oppose moves by Congress to ban magazines that hold 11 or more rounds of ammunition.
“We don’t care about semiautomatic weapons or armor-piercing bullets or extended clips. If you’re a hunter and you’re out, you’re lucky if you get a shot or two off before the animal takes off.”
“At the same time,” the hunter continues, “you’ll have a very hard time having the hunting community say something about the NRA,” because of the money it gives to conservation. Millions of dollars come from NRA members when they pay the excise tax on firearms and ammunition mandated by the Pittman-Robertson Act. At least 10 percent goes to conservation efforts.
Yet slowly, and carefully, more are beginning to speak out. Following the shooting deaths of 20 schoolchildren and six teachers and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, avid hunter Lily Raff McCaulou wrote that stricter gun control was long overdue.
“Unfortunately, when the details of the upcoming bills get hashed out behind closed doors later this year, there probably won’t be anyone in the room to represent gun owners like me,” she wrote. “We sportsmen have done ourselves a disservice by allowing the National Rifle Association to become synonymous with gun owners. The NRA’s outright rejection of almost all gun control is unreasonable.”
Another hunter, Ari LeVaux, wrote around the same time that in spite of claiming to be the largest pro-hunting organization in the world, “the NRA couldn’t represent me less. And as a human being, I object to being associated with those bullies. The NRA is not for hunters, any more than AAA is for bicyclists,” he wrote. “First and foremost the NRA serves gun fetishists and the firearms industry.”
Their tactics, he wrote, are meant to be intimidating and exclusionary. “When I take my gun to the store to get it worked on, the information slip I fill out includes a line for my NRA number,” LeVaux wrote. “I face the same blank field requesting my NRA number when I buy a membership at my local shooting range — some ranges won’t sell membership to non-NRA shooters.”
One reason few choose to stand up to the NRA, or try to find alternative representation on gun rights and gun control, is because hunters and conservationists differ on so many platforms and issues, they find it hard to consolidate as the NRA does.
The group considers any attempt to restrict gun access an attack on all gun owners, one conservationist argues. This means its members are quick to unite and condemn any attempt to limit access to weapons.
Another factor, and quite an influential one, is money from the firearms industry. “The New Republic” reported recently that the NRA joined gun sellers in boycotting an annual outdoor activity show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after the organizer chose not to allow automatic weapons out of respect for the victims of Sandy Hook.
The number of people who went hunting in 2011 was 13.7 million at last count, more than three times the NRA's stated membership. If hunters want better representation in Washington, D.C., including on issues like gun control and access to land, more must feel confident enough to speak up.
Don Macalady says that’s starting to happen, that there are hunting groups springing up in Montana and Washington state, as well as his own group in Colorado, Hunters Against Gun Violence, that are not afraid to go on the record opposing the NRA. "The gun debate has gotten way out of hand," he says. Now, "more hunters are standing up saying, 'The NRA is not us.'"