How gun sales benefit wildlife

Americans are stocking up on pistols, rifles and ammo in the aftermath of last week’s horrific killing of five Dallas police officers. Gun stores filled after an Orlando gunman murdered 49 people at a nightclub last month. Fear, and politicians’ calls for stricter gun control laws, is good for the firearms industry.

It also benefits, in an odd way, nature-loving Georgians.

A little-known federal program slaps an excise tax on the sale of guns and ammunition, with the bulk of that money returned to states to boost wildlife conservation and land acquisition programs. And, with gun sales soaring, Georgia is receiving record amounts of conservation money from Washington. The program sent more than $15 million Georgia’s way last year — nearly three times the amount just five years earlier.

Hunters mainly benefit. Earlier this month, for example, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources set aside a few million dollars to buy 3,400 acres of prime deer-hunting land along the Flint River an hour south of Atlanta.

Yet nothing prohibits Atlanta hikers or birders from enjoying an expanded Sprewell Bluff Wildlife Management Area. The public property will also serve as critical green space in a state woefully lacking publicly owned and accessible land.

“You see spikes in gun sales every time you have a horrible event anywhere in the country. You don’t know if they’re first-time buyers or gun enthusiasts who want to add to their collection before any restrictions are put in place,” said Mike Worley, the president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation. “And any increase in guns and ammunition sales indeed benefits wildlife and wildlife habitat production across this country.”

$221 million for Georgia

America’s whitetail deer population neared extinction at the turn of the previous century with less than a half million roaming the Lower 48. Today, an estimated 30 million do. Congress deserves some credit for the resurgence.

In 1937, lawmakers passed the Pittman-Robertson Act, placing an 11 percent federal excise tax on the sale of shotguns, rifles, ammo, bows and arrows, and other outdoor equipment. Handgun owners pay a 10 percent excise tax.

The logic is simple: Hunters, who benefit most from animals to shoot and places to hunt them, pay the bulk of the cost for their outdoor pursuits. More land and deer attract more hunters. Who buy more guns and ammo. Which provides more money to buy land and restore habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dispenses the money based on the size of a state and the number of hunting licenses. (A similar program is geared toward recreational fishermen.) For every $3 the federal government hands out, the states are required to chip in $1. They must also promise not to divert the money to other programs.

In return, they’re given much leeway in how the money is spent as long as it’s for “restoration, conservation, management and enhancement of native wildlife and their habitats.” Some of the money is used to teach firearms safety or to build shooting ranges, including one at Georgia Southern University. Hunters aren’t the only ones who can take advantage of Pittman-Robertson.

“It really benefits all Americans in providing abundant fish and wildlife, clean air and water, outdoor recreational opportunities and an improved quality of life,” said Christy Vigfusson, who runs the Fish and Wildlife Service’s restoration program. “It lets you have a connection with nature and get a better sense of who we are in the natural world.”

The program, since its inception, has raised $9.9 billion. Nearly 6 million acres have been acquired, leased or placed under perpetual conservation easement, Vigfusson said.

Georgia has received more than $221 million, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources, which helps “manage” over 1 million acres of wildlife management area land for hunting. Roughly 100,000 acres of land across the state has been added to the WMA system in the past decade.

State officials, in negotiations with landowners, wouldn’t say how much money has been set aside to add more than 3,000 acres to the 1,200-acre Sprewell Bluff WMA. The rugged and forested land near Thomaston, which overlooks the Flint River, is popular with deer and turkey hunters. Jimmy Carter, as governor, killed plans to dam the Flint at Sprewell Bluff.

The state, though, has spent $6.6 million in Pittman-Robertson money on the 20,000-acre Paulding Forest WMA west of Atlanta. Other state, local, federal, nonprofit and private money covered the $67 million project favored by hunters, fishermen, hikers, campers, horseback riders, even hang gliders.

The state owns only 1.6 percent of all the land in Georgia — Florida, by contrast, owns 15.9 percent — further incentive to parlay Pittman-Robertson into publicly accessible green space, supporters say.

“We really struggle in the eastern part of the U.S. with very limited amounts of public lands,” said the wildlife group’s Worley, whose dozen shotguns have added to Pittman-Robertson reserves. “As the population grows, it’s even more important for us to be able to protect wild lands and habitat for wildlife.”

Gun sales surge

Gun owners are doing their share. A decade ago, the FBI did 9 million background checks on potential gun owners. Last year it did 21.3 million.

Georgia mirrors the national trend: The FBI undertook nearly 567,000 background checks on potential Georgia gun buyers last year. A year earlier, the feds did 485,000.

And, while hunting is making something of a comeback in Georgia after years of decline — nearly 400,000 hunters bought licenses in 2015, a 30 percent boost in six years — sales of pistols are surging. Georgians sought 190,000 handgun permits last year, nearly one-third more than the year before.

Sales soar each time mass murder or terrorism rocks the nation.

“People feel insecure. They buy weapons to carry and to defend themselves at home,” said O’Neill Williams, a hunting and fishing enthusiast from Atlanta with a show on News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB. “Gun sales will continue to skyrocket.”

The usual pleas for gun control legislation by President Barack Obama and other politicians after each horrific incident prompt gun enthusiasts to buy more weapons, fearful that the government will infringe upon their Second Amendment rights.

“Barack Obama is the greatest gun salesman that ever lived,” Williams quipped.

The president and other gun control advocates have been good for Georgia’s wilderness. The state received about $7 million in total Pittman-Robertson money the year Obama became president. Last year, it received $19 million.