It’s Time for Hunters to Leave the NRA
America's proudest tradition should never be used as an excuse for anti-American politics
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Hunting is possibly the proudest outdoor tradition our country has: It’s why we have such abundant animal populations. It’s how millions of American families put affordable healthy protein on their dinner plates. And, in large part, it’s what pays for the rest of us to enjoy so much wild land.
That’s why it’s unconscionable that the NRA uses hunting as an excuse to pollute American politics with its toxic agenda.
In the NRA, we hunters have an organization that claims to represent our interests and to which many of us pay to belong (half of all NRA members hunt). But we also have an organization that is funding the war on our public lands, while making our beloved sport look like a bastion of far-right crackpots. The NRA is doing all that while using our name and money to further rip this country apart.
For all those reasons, it’s time for hunters to unequivocally break from the NRA. If the group’s bullying of teenage victims of violence or its seeming enthusiasm for seeing that violence worsen aren’t enough to convince my fellow sportsmen and women of this argument, then two more recent events really should: Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee’s declaration of war on our public lands and the arrest of Russian agent Maria Butina, who is charged with using the NRA to manipulate the American political process.
The former highlights just how badly the NRA’s policies have betrayed hunters. Public lands provide habitat for our nation’s wildlife, and free access to those lands makes American hunting uniquely egalitarian. Yet the NRA financially supports and endorses Lee’s campaigns and has said, “We can count on Mike Lee to defend the freedoms…of hunters and sportsmen.”
Butina’s alleged actions demonstrate just how far off the rails the NRA has gone. Let’s start there.
What Is the NRA?
The NRA (which describes itself as “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization”) was founded in 1871 to promote good marksmanship and has since provided safety and proficiency training to millions of Americans. Many hunters likely became aware of the group as kids, attending one of its firearms training or hunter’s ed events.
But in 1934, the organization started to alert its members about proposed firearms legislation. In 1975, the NRA formed a lobbying arm, the Center for Legislative Action. In 1980, it endorsed its first political candidate—Ronald Reagan—and began pouring large sums of money into politics. When most of us think of the NRA now, we probably think of Charlton Heston’s famous 2000 “cold, dead hands” speech, which he gave in the wake of the Columbine massacre. At that moment, the NRA’s transformation from a gun training and safety organization into a political entity was complete.
Today’s NRA is unrecognizable from the organization that taught us to shoot as kids. To the NRA, guns have become a tool in a wider culture war, where it has become a leading voice in sowing division and polarizing Americans.
The person who understands this best is Butina, who had to explain to her handlers in Russian intelligence the opportunity she saw in bending the NRA’s efforts to that nation’s will. In communiques released by the FBI following her arrest last week, Butina describes the NRA as “the largest sponsor of the elections to the U.S. Congress.” Let’s follow that money.
Where Does the NRA’s Money Go?
The direct relationship between pro-gun money and the mouths of the politicians it buys became painfully obvious on a recent Sunday night, when Showtime aired the first episode of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show, Who Is America?
In it, Cohen convinced several members of the U.S. Congress to provide on-camera advocation for his spoof movement to arm toddlers. The segment defies description, so I encourage you to take a minute and watch it. It should be the most eye-opening 150 seconds of your week. Then consider the Congress members’ political backing:
- Former Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who now works as a lobbyist promoting the interests of a Russian bank, received a 100 percent approval rating from the NRA.
- Dana Rohrbabacher’s (R-Calif.) 2016 campaign was sponsored by the NRA.
- Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) 2016 campaign was sponsored by the NRA.
- Former congressman Joe Walsh’s (R-Ill.) 2012 campaign was sponsored by the NRA.
How does this affect hunters? Well, aside from our good name being associated with the dangerous buffoonery above, the NRA pays for the campaigns of politicians who are decidedly working against our interests.
Senator Mike Lee of Utah has stated that he wants to hand over all federal public lands over to the states—a prospect that will cost Utah taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and that we know is just a thinly veiled excuse to force the sale of those lands to private interests. If that happened, hunting would become accessible only to the rich. The NRA donated $23,000 in trackable donations to Lee’s 2016 campaign.
House National Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) fought vehemently to have the Bears Ears monument designation rescinded. That area has some of the best elk hunting in the world, and today that population enjoys less protection and hunters have less access, due in part to Bishop’s efforts. The NRA publicly donated $4,000 to his 2016 campaign.
Hunters staged nationwide protests last year when Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) proposed selling off 3.3 million acres of public land he deemed “disposable.” The NRA publicly donated $2,000 to his 2016 campaign and $1,500 in 2012.
In March, Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, stated, “Secretary Zinke is fighting for us—America’s hunters—each and every day.” Since taking over the Department of the Interior, Zinke has conducted what could best be described as a coordinated attack on the interests of American hunters. Compare the NRA’s ringing endorsement of Zinke’s actions, with this assessment from Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, which went so far as making the above anti-Zinke television ad and airing it throughout his home state of Montana.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Compare this list of senators who in 2015 voted in favor of selling off all your national forests, wildlife refuges (which were created by duck hunters), and national wildernesses, with this list of NRA campaign donations in 2016, and you’ll see a near 100 percent correlation. The NRA’s money is being used to work against the interests of the American hunter.
Where Does the NRA’s Money Come From?
The organization does not disclose its donors. But there are some basic inferences we can make from publicly available information.
The number of NRA members is thought to be about 5 million (the group doesn’t disclose those specifics either). The most expensive annual membership level costs $40 per year. In a best-case scenario, the NRA makes $200 million a year from its members. Yet the organization’s revenue in 2016 was reportedly $433.9 million. Where does all that extra money come from?
CNN Money reports that private individuals donate to the NRA—up to $85 million between 2005 and 2015. But $8.5 million a year or so still doesn’t get us close to that 2016 total.
Perhaps the answer comes from Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, under whose leadership the organization has expanded its outreach to corporate donors. Soliciting donations, LaPierre said the “National Rifle Association’s newly expanded Corporate Partners Program is an opportunity for corporations to partner with the NRA…This program is geared toward your company’s corporate interests.”
In 2010, Bloomberg reported that revenues from corporate fundraising were growing at twice the rate of the NRA’s membership fees. According to Bloomberg, the organization’s largest donors are gun manufacturers. The group’s work has demonstrably changed course to serve their interests. A 2011 report from the Violence Policy Center details this growing corporate donation program and concludes, “The mutually dependent nature of the National Rifle Association and the gun industry explains the NRA’s unwillingness to compromise on even the most limited controls over firearms or related products (such as restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines)…The NRA claims that its positions are driven solely by a concern for the interests of gun owners, never mentioning its own financial stake in protecting the profits of its gun industry patrons.”
It’s not only gun manufacturers who donate to the NRA. Large corporations from other industries also seek to take advantage of the organization’s robust lobbying and campaign finance apparatuses. In 2014, the Center for American Progress reported that as much as 28 percent of the NRA’s revenue from corporate giving was coming from the oil and gas industries. The center goes on to detail that the oil and gas donations to the NRA are leading to its efforts to work against the interest of hunters. “These efforts align with the oil and gas industry’s long-standing campaigns to expand drilling activities in National Forests and public lands; sell off federal public lands with high-mineral value to private interests; [and] block efforts to protect public lands for their backcountry or wilderness characteristics,” the center states.
Then, of course, there are the Russians. The FBI is investigating what role large donations to the NRA from Russian oligarch Alexander Torshin could have played in the organization’s political spending during the 2016 election. Butina was allegedly working with Torshin to achieve access to American politicians through the NRA. And, after initially denying it had Russian donors, the NRA sent a letter to Congress in April disclosing 23 Russian donors. Is it simply a coincidence that the division the NRA is sowing aligns with the goals of Russia’s information war?
What Does the NRA Do for Hunting?
In 1970, 40 million Americans purchased hunting licenses. Today, that number is 11.5 million. This is a problem, because the fees hunters pay both in taxes on sporting equipment and for our licenses and tags fund wildlife conservation.
This change has been brought about by demographic shifts—more Americans now live in cities—and by larger societal trends, like people spending more time playing video games or watching TV and the declining number of middle-class households. Because most Americans today live in cities, they’d have to travel to hunt, which adds time and cost. And because there are fewer middle-class households, fewer people can afford what’s now a more expensive hobby. And as fewer people participate in hunting, fewer people learn to have a positive opinion of it, leading to further problems.
And so the hunting world is rightly putting a lot of effort into recruiting new hunters. A lot of those efforts focus on giving the sport a friendlier, more diverse face and emphasizing its value to animal and land conservation and the health benefits of wild-caught meat. But the NRA takes the complete opposite approach: It’s trying to raise money from hunters using fear.
“To save hunting, you must understand the terms of the battle,” reads the melodramatic first sentence of NRAHunting.com. “Because the animal rights extremists fighting to destroy hunting have an even more destructive goal: the systematic diminishment of humanity itself.” It goes on to encourage you to donate money to the NRA by saying, “The truth behind the animal rights movement is nothing less than evil. We are going to expose them—but we need your help to do it. Can we count on you to fight?”
The NRA is attempting to polarize and divide through fear—and to raise money by doing so. Is that approach really going to create more hunters, or is it going to turn off people who think animals deserve respect and protection?
In the NRA, we hunters have an organization that claims to represent our interests and to which many of us pay to belong. But we also have an organization that is funding the war on our public lands to serve corporate interests, while making our beloved sport look like a bastion of far-right crackpots. And it’s doing that while using our name and money to further rip this country apart. The NRA claims to be a civil rights organization, but if we allow the organization to continue all of this, it’s actually going to destroy our right to go hunting. It’s time for hunters to leave the NRA.