February 07, 2023
It's been called the only tax we're happy to pay, the excise fee that each of us shells out every time we buy a new gun or the ammunition to feed it. Because this federal tax—it is 11 percent on most long guns and all ammunition, 10 percent on pistols and revolvers—isn't displayed on price tags or sales receipts, it's easy to overlook.
But this revenue, which is collected by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and then redistributed annually to state fish-and-game agencies to be used for everything from wildlife management to hunter education materials to land acquisition, is the engine for most of our wildlife successes in America, and can be credited for creating the shooting and hunting culture that most readers of this column belong to. This self-taxation (it includes archery products) has collected and then reinvested more than $15 billion in wildlife benefits since the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act was passed by Congress in 1937. By any measure, it's been wildly successful.
But, as your grandmother might say, no good deed goes unpunished. The benefits of "P-R," as Pittman-Robertson funding is often called, have been downplayed while the alleged tyranny of the tax has been amplified.
Welcome to the confluence of guns and public policy in America, a place that's especially thorny these days as guns take on an outsized role as agents of polarization. Just this past year, P-R funding has been "weaponized" both by anti-gun activists and by lawmakers who suggest either redirecting the fund or mining other sources of revenue for wildlife investment in America.
The rhetorical raid on P-R funding started, as so many trends do, in California. Hoping to tap a funding source to address the societal cost of gun violence and also to impose additional burdens on firearms buyers, state legislators introduced a bill that would hit firearm and ammunition sales in the Golden State with an extra 10 to 11 percent tax on top of the P-R tax. While scholars debated the constitutional merits of the bill—which ultimately didn't gain legislative traction—the U.S. Congress got involved, floating an equal and opposite bill that would repeal the P-R tax.
You might have heard of this congressional effort to abolish P-R, officially known as the Federal Aid in Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration fund. Introduced last June by Georgia congressman Andrew Clyde and ultimately co-sponsored by more than 50 House Republicans, the RETURN (it stands for Repealing Excise Tax on Unalienable Rights Now) Our Constitutional Rights Act, HR 8167, would repeal the federal excise tax on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment and replace the dedicated P-R funding with annual appropriations from the U.S. Treasury and revenue from offshore oil and gas leases. It would also reduce—but not abolish—a similar tax on fishing equipment that serves the same purpose for aquatic habitat and fisheries management that P-R does for terrestrial wildlife.
Nearly every conservation group in America came out in strong opposition to Clyde's bill, which many interpreted as virtue signaling.
"It has zero chance of getting far down the legislative process, but was a way to express opposition to the California bill and to further make the point that this sacred cow of conservation funding might not be all that sacred," said one conservation leader who has been active in quashing the bill but didn't want to be named out of concern that it might diminish his influence. "But it should get our attention because it represents the first time that the American system of conservation funding has been attacked."
It's also a sign that this wonky system is poorly understood by most gun buyers, who might not see the benefits of a fund that puts more deer in the woods and more elk on the mountain.
THE CHANGING NATURE OF GUN PURCHASES
When the Federal Aid in Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration Act was passed, in the dark years of the Great Depression, fish and wildlife populations were plummeting after years of unregulated hunting and habitat loss. The fund was imagined as a "user-pays" model, in which those who would benefit from wildlife restoration would pay for the hard work to bring back deer, turkeys, pronghorn and trout to America’s woods, prairie and waters.
While the fund didn't differentiate between firearms purchased for hunting, target shooting or personal defense, the vast majority in the first decades of P-R were bought by hunters for hunting. The feedback loop worked even better than its creators might have intended. The more guns Americans bought, the more money was available for wildlife restoration, which created more hunting opportunities and more sales of guns to hunters.
But starting in the early 2000s, with the rise of AR-platform rifles and recreational shooting, the balance of guns sold to target shooters versus hunters has been tilting. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which administers the P-R account, between fiscal years 2016 and 2020, the fund generated $718 million annually on average. But the mix of firearms has changed remarkably since 1937. The Service reported that ammunition sales accounted for 32 percent of P-R revenue in the 2016-2020 time frame, while pistols and revolvers accounted for 31 percent of revenue. Firearms (meaning rifles, shotguns, and other long guns) made up 30 percent of the revenue stream, while archery equipment accounted for only 6 percent of revenue.
In the two years since that report, P-R revenue has spiked. Last year alone, these excise taxes generated more than $1 billion in funding to assist state wildlife agencies in fulfilling their missions, according to the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation.
The rise in recreational shooting activities has left some target shooters and those who use guns for purposes other than hunting feeling like the P-R model could use an update. They've made some gains, the most recent of which is the 2019 "Modernizing the Pittman-Robertson Fund for Tomorrow’s Needs Act," which allows funds to be used for hunter and shooter recruitment efforts and to build shooting ranges across the country. The idea of that legislation, which was signed into law by President Trump, was to both expand and broaden the base of hunters and shooters, and to recognize the significant contributions to P-R by recreational shooters.
"If you think about it, the updates to Pittman-Robertson funding eligibility are the same as they were back in the 1930s and 1940s," says the conservation leader. "We're still funding the seeds and rootstock that grow our community, only now we are including new hunters and shooting ranges in our definition of rootstock. If we take care of those elements, then we'll continue to grow our community of hunters and shooters in America, which is the original idea of the Pittman-Robertson Act."
The conservation leader noted that recreational shooters have a valid reason to expect more P-R funds to be used for non-hunting-related infrastructure.
"These are the folks who pushed the annual balance above $1 billion," he says. "All those ARs and personal-defense shotguns and pistols, and all that ammunition that folks were buying during the [COVID-19] pandemic generated record amounts of excise tax. Just as we built wetlands and deer habitat during the early days of P-R, we now need to be building community shooting ranges and trap clubs and making sure that we’re growing our ranks. If we can continue to support more shooters and hunters, then they can expect to have places and opportunities to pursue their passions. Because they paid for them."