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Editor's note: This is the third in a three-part series investigating the complex relationship among the oil and gas industries, major gun groups and the hunting community. The first installment can be found here. The second, here.
Donald Macalady hunts in Kansas, Wyoming and Colorado, primarily for antelope, pronghorn and white-tailed deer. “The white-tail deer we get in Kansas are the ones I like to eat the best, because they’re fed on alfalfa and corn,” he says in an interview.
Macalady is 73 years old and eats what he hunts. "Most of my life, I've eaten only the red meat we've harvested ourselves," he says. His four children, now ages 35 to 46, all hunt, and all eat what they hunt too.
He's not the only one. “I think the majority of hunters — at least the hunters who hunt because they love to be outdoors — they like to commune with nature and they like to be connected,” he says. “My big thing is being connected with nature and what I eat, so I think that genre of hunter is more likely to be less concerned with the weapon than the event.”
“The weapon” has been the focus of gun groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has opposed moves by Congress to ban magazines that hold 11 or more rounds of ammunition. Hunters in some places, says Macalady, aren’t even allowed under law to carry weapons with a capacity for more than five cartridges.
“So people who say they need magazines, they’re breaking the law,” Macalady says. “That law has been on the books for decades. That’s nothing new.”
Hunters, he says, “are very much upset with the National Rifle Association” for opposing “any sort of legislation that they perceive as limiting their right to have any gun any time they want.”
When two Union Army veterans created the NRA in 1871, it was primarily focused on marksmanship and rifle training. As the organization's website explains, by the time of World War II its membership had grown to such an extent that it was able to provide Britain with 7,000 firearms to fend off a potential invasion by Germany. “After the war, the NRA concentrated its efforts on another much-needed arena for education and training: the hunting community,” the history reads.
The focus began to change in the 1970s, when the NRA moved to “cater to a more mainstream audience, with less emphasis on the technicalities of firearms, and a more general focus on self-defense and recreational use of firearms.”
There are now some 4 million members in the NRA, and their ability to organize, write elected officials and rally together is something their opponents stand in awe of. Yet because of the group’s continued embrace of Second Amendment issues, and seeming growing distance from what some hunters consider to be issues that matter most to them, the NRA is no longer seen as their greatest advocate in Washington.
“I would say on the record they are absolutely not working for the interests of hunters,” says Ross Lane, an Air Force veteran and director of the conservation group Western Values Project.
Lane is a lifelong hunter who recalls how his father would describe stalking elk as “taking your gun for a walk.” He prefers to hunt antelope and is also a passionate conservationist. “I think once we saw all the money flowing around and we hear positions from the NRA that work against the interests of everyday sportsmen — it's obvious they've undergone a big evolution from being a hunting group to being a gun group," he says.
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.'"