This column recently described a shooting range operated by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. The agency built that range, and eight others, with funds from the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, commonly known as Pittman-Robertson.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission also makes available shooting ranges on game lands across the state. Pennsylvania shooters holding either a hunting license or a range permit can use about 50 rifle, pistol and archery ranges, also funded largely (states must match their range expenses with 25% of the total) through Pittman-Robertson.
These facilities are important to promote skill among hunters, and to maintain interest in recreational shooting, both of which contribute to Pittman-Robertson funding used by state wildlife agencies for varied projects.
That’s because Pittman-Robertson dollars originate with an excise tax paid the federal government by buyers of firearms and ammunition. Sometime after 1937, Congress amended the law to subject pistols and archery equipment to the tax.
Once collected, the tax is distributed to state wildlife agencies based on a formula. Pennsylvania does well in the system because we are a relatively large state in land area (about middle of the pack), but a national leader in hunting license sales, both important variables in the formula.
According to the Game Commission’s 2021 Annual Report, 15% of the agency’s total revenue ($26,150,000) came from Pittman-Robertson. Readers may be surprised to learn that’s about twice the commission’s revenue from the sale of resident hunting licenses.
After the column about that North Carolina range appeared, I came across an article that outlined important shifts in recreational shooting nationwide which, its authors wrote, state wildlife agencies must keep abreast of because of the implications for Pittman-Robertson funding.
The article first appeared in 2017 in The Wildlife Professional, Law and Policy section, and I can only surmise that the trends it identified have intensified since. I observed a glimpse of these trends myself when shooting at the North Carolina range with my son.
When forward-thinking lawmakers (Why does that sound odd?) back in 1937 conceived of Pittman-Robertson, they and everyone who supported the law assumed, understandably, that hunters would be the primary, if not the only, contributors to the fund.
Similarly, they wrote the law so that wildlife conservation work, wildlife management, habitat restoration, and public hunting land acquisition were the eligible projects to which most Pittman-Robertson moneys would be directed.
But according to the Wildlife Professional article, which cited several national surveys, the characteristics of today’s shooting public are changing rapidly.
A series of surveys conducted for the National Shooting Sports Foundation by Responsive Management, a research firm that has done surveys for all 50 state wildlife agencies, found that by 2014, new shooters initiated to shooting within the past five years made up 15% of all shooters.
Additionally, these new shooters were overwhelmingly non-hunters and lived in urban areas.
Researchers studied this trend from another perspective by asking all shooters surveyed (not just new shooters) if they hunted only, shot for sport only, or did both. A surprisingly large faction (44.2 percent) of all shooters replied that they participated in sport-shooting but did not hunt.
The smallest proportion were hunters who did not otherwise shoot for recreation (14.7 percent). I’d hate to try to make a living today selling field-grade pump shotguns.
I know it’s not politically correct to profile others, but I’ve been around hunters all my life and I could tell by overheard conversations that most of the shooters using the North Carolina range the day I was there were not hunters.
They had contributed to Pittman-Robertson when they bought their equipment, but they are not the shooter the drafters of Pittman-Robertson, who assumed that hunting would always be the sole motivation to shoot, envisioned.
And that’s fine. But the point made by the article I read is that this change in the characteristics of shooters may portend a call for change in the way shooters’ excise tax is spent by the state agencies that ultimately receive it.
“It’s likely that educational efforts will be needed to ensure that non-hunting sport-shooters have a firm understanding of the goals of the Pittman-Robertson Act and how the funds are used to establish new shooting ranges as well as manage wildlife habitat conservation in their state,” stated the article’s authors.
“These educational efforts will be especially important in urban areas where wildlife management is a less important issue than the demand for shooting ranges.”
In other words, as the shooting public shifts toward more non-hunters who will want more shooting facilities, it is crucial that they understand the original intent of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act was to restore, conserve, and manage wildlife, and that the original funding proportions dedicated to true wildlife work remain as originally intended.