Record gun sales boost grants to wildlife agencies
The majority of customers at Jason Doetzer's gun shop have one thing in mind.
It's not getting ready for deer camp.
Yet, they're partly responsible for an unprecedented wave of funding for wildlife management and hunter recruitment here and nationwide.
Doetzer sells traditional hunting rifles at his store, Iron City Armory in Bridgeville. He moves a few each fall, but they otherwise “pretty much sit on the wall.”
Instead, most shoppers want something — a rifle, shotgun or especially a handgun — for personal defense.
“The biggest surge I can tell you I've seen is with the person who's never owned a gun before. It's the 50-year-old guy from Mt. Lebanon who's never felt the need to have a gun but now, he does, for whatever reason. It's women, too. There are a lot more females carrying all day, every day than ever before,” Doetzer said.
“People just feel vulnerable.”
Increasingly, they're turning to guns for security.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's background check system, about 9.1 million people attempted to purchase a firearm in 1999. In 2015, a record 23.1 million did.
That marked 10 consecutive years of applications topping at least 10 million, seven consecutive of at least 14 million and three consecutive of at least 20 million.
Manufacturers are racing to meet demand.
According to the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, American gun makers built about 3 million firearms in 1986. In 2013, the most recent year for which numbers are available, they built a record 10.8 million. That was up 21 percent over 2012 and 40 percent over 2011, both of which set records.
Production increased across all categories: rifles, shotguns, pistols and revolvers.
That's been tremendous for wildlife and hunting.
Those who buy guns and ammunition — regardless of type, caliber or intended use — pay a federal excise tax. It's known as Pittman-Robertson funding. The Fish and Wildlife Service annually distributes it to state wildlife agencies based on their land mass and number of hunting license buyers.
The money can be spent on things ranging from wildlife research and habitat management to hunter recruitment and education training, said Tom Busiahn, chief of the service's division of policy and programs.
In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has had its share of Pittman-Robertson funding grow from $7.4 million in 2005 to a record $24.9 million in 2015, said federal grants coordinator Gary Camus.
Established in 1937, Pittman-Robertson has accrued more than $10.1 billion.
Yet, few gun owners know it exists.
“We sometimes call it the greatest conservation success story never told,” said Jim Curcuruto, director of research for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the shooting industry's trade group.
There's likewise little awareness of Pittman-Robertson among all but the most serious non-hunting outdoorsmen and women, said Jim Bonner, executive director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.
He knows a bit about the funding stream, he said. And he's been following news of the rise in gun sales in the media.
“But I never made the logical connection of the possible corollary between the two,” Bonner said.
Today, the issue is how to keep that money flowing.
The North American Model of conservation says wildlife belongs to everyone but relies heavily on hunter dollars to fund its management, Busiahn said. That worked for a long time, he added.
Hunter numbers have stagnated, though.
“We could be seeing a significant decline in hunting participation and consequently funding in the next 10 years. So that concerns a lot of people,” Busiahn said.
The new wave of gun buyers might be the “saving grace,” said Todd Holmes, shooting sports coordinator for the commission.
Figuring out how to turn those newbie shooters, who are more likely to be young, female, urban and first-time gun owners, into long-term customers or hunters is key, Curcuruto said.
Manufacturers are trying to show that firearms can be used for fun on the range and for protection, said Samantha Pedder, the Westmoreland County native serving as outreach and diversity manager for the Shooting Sports Foundation.
Wildlife agencies, meanwhile, are starting to look at non-hunting gun owners as constituents.
“State wildlife agencies are really trying to understand their position in the game right now,” Pedder said.
Legislation before Congress that would expand how Pittman-Robertson money could be spent might help, said Mike Bazinet, public affairs director for the foundation. It would, among other things, allow wildlife agencies to do more for and increase contact with gun buyers paying into the system, he said.
That's something Roger Elder would like to see.
The Ruffs Dale man hasn't hunted since moving to Pennsylvania in 1980. He is a competitive shooter and volunteer match director for the U.S. Practical Shooting Association at East Huntingdon Sportsmen's Club in Alverton.
The popularity of those events show the need to support all gun owners, he said.
“My personal opinion is that Pittman-Robertson should continue to primarily support wildlife management, but I also think there's a growing need for non-hunting related shooter education programs. It's not hard to connect the dots between the need for education and the need for safe shooting venues, which, of course, involves money,” Elder said.
“Small clubs like East Huntingdon struggle to pay the bills, so it's difficult to scrape up the money for facility improvements or new shooter program development. A Pittman-Robertson grant may offer a solution to those willing to pursue it.”
Industry leaders will debate that and more at the foundation's annual “Industry Summit” from Monday to Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
Many expect the gun boom to continue in the run-up to the presidential election in November.
Doetzer said he's “just waiting” for a rush of customers.
Keith Savage, owner of Braverman Arms in Wilkinsburg, expects the same.
“I think there will always be an interest in guns. It's what makes us free,” Savage said.
Bob Frye is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com.