There is a little known tax in our country that produced $310 million in revenue in 2008, and billions since its inception. The tax is called the “Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act” and it applies to all firearms manufactured or imported including pistols, revolvers, rifles, ammunition and archery equipment.
We might assume the funds are used for victim recovery programs, violence prevention programs or safety education, but all funds are given to state wildlife agencies. They are used to implement conservation programs that are primarily hunting related. This somewhat odd connection between gun sales and wildlife lies in the belief that hunting IS wildlife conservation and that guns are manufactured for this sole purpose. However, many guns are purchased for self-defense, law enforcement or gun collections. And wildlife conservation, as commonly managed today, does NOT benefit the public majority, our environment, or most species of wildlife.
The tax rate on guns and related equipment is 10% to 11%. It is collected from the manufacturer, producer or importer of the gun and distributed to state wildlife agencies by the Department of the Interior. There is a small exemption for military sales to the defense department.
Our domestic non-military gun market is estimated at $2.1 billion and growing. This figure includes assorted weapons, many not used for sport hunting at all. Why then do all gun tax dollars go into state conservation agency coffers? The answer goes back to the concept that the state wildlife agency system is the brainchild of the hunting community.
In the late 1930’s when the tax was adopted, gun use was primarily related to hunting and the notion was “those who benefit from the tax should be the ones shouldering the burden by paying”. This is an admirable concept but the proliferation of guns today makes the original justification obsolete and patently unfair. Today hunters continue to benefit from the P-R gun tax even though they are NOT the only ones paying. The general public is paying much of this tax as many guns are purchased for our law enforcement, for personal collections and for self-defense purposes.
The formula for allocating the tax money back to state wildlife agencies encourages states to expand the sport of hunting and increase license sales. Each state is given money based on a ratio with two components: The size of the state, and how many hunting licenses that state sold. Yes, states compete against each other for these funds by selling more hunting licenses.
(Thinking about wildlife population issues? You should be, and you read correctly: Increasing consumptive animals = more licenses to sell! Perhaps you believe hunting is needed to prevent starving animals? What do you think about agencies manipulating seasons for larger populations of game animals, just to sell more licenses? Getting the bigger picture yet?)
All states combined received over $309 million dollars in 2008. It seems reasonable to ask whether a portion of these P-R funds might be better spent benefiting a larger segment of society. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service there are about 12.5 million hunters in the United States – only 4% of the population. But there are about 60 million gun owners, and a few million dollars could be invaluable to a local school district or health care clinic.
Another troubling nuance of the gun tax (that turns the general public into unwitting patrons of sport hunting promotions, recruiting children into hunting, and special interest lobbying) is the law’s requirement that only 75% of any state wildlife program be financed by the gun tax. The state must provide the other 25% from general funds or from hunting license fees. In a number of states, hunting license fees are not adequate and general funds, even lottery ticket sales, are used.
A fund for victims of gun violence should be an obvious part of this gun tax. For crimes committed with handguns and other non-hunting weapons, a fund could be established to help the victims and their families. There’s a lot of gun tax money out there – can’t we spread the wealth?
If you are not of the 4-6% hunting population and wish to support wildlife protection you may want to think twice about an erroneous donation in the name of “conservation”. The lack of balance for supporting non-consumptive wildlife and for non-sporting wildlife enthusiasts is a growing concern. More on how these funds and wildlife management are misrepresented to the public in this Pace Legal Review, “Whose Wildlife is it Anyway?”.
If we expect ethical standards for wildlife and responsible tax spending we must start demanding this. By all means, stop assuming they exist.
Portions reprinted with permission from www.politicswildlife.blogspot.com by Linda Heinberg, an attorney and author on the politics and social issues of wildlife conservation, and the persuasive influence of sport hunting on our environment.
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