Presidential politics prompt soaring gun sales, help Great Lakes’ wildlife

By Sarah Coefield
coefield@msu.edu
Great Lakes Echo
Sept. 15, 2009

A run on guns and ammo in the wake of President Barack Obama’s election last year may be a boon to Great Lakes wildlife.

glsales1A federal tax on the manufacture and import of firearms, ammunition, bows and arrows is distributed to states for wildlife conservation and hunter education programs.

And those tax collections are climbing fast.

Background checks for gun purchases hit record levels in November and corresponded with significant gun and ammunition sales. Gun enthusiasts say they’re stocking up because they fear interference in gun rights by the Obama administration.

The strong recent sales have tapered off, but even that short spike is good news for local wildlife agencies.  While the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources received about $10 million last year – roughly one third of the wildlife section’s operating budget — it recently got a heads up from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that more aid will be coming for 2010, said Dennis Simon, the wildlife management section chief for the MDNR.

“It is pretty exciting, particularly the next couple of years there’s going to be a huge increase in federal aid coming our way,” he said.

The amount of funds states receive is based on their land area and number of licensed hunters. “Basically, these conservation efforts come back around to benefit the people that are actually spending the money on the ammunition,” said Ashley Spratt, a public affairs specialist with the federal agency.  States with more land and hunters get more money.

Approximately 22 percent of the nation’s gun and ammunition taxes collected for wildlife restoration are distributed among the Great Lakes states. The impact of those funds is “tremendous, absolutely tremendous,” said Chuck Nelson, an associate professor in the forestry department at Michigan State University.  “If it wasn’t for that money, we would be losing many of our biologists, many of the funds we have to maintain state game and wildlife areas.”

Wildlife restoration funds are used for a number of projects, including habitat and wetland restoration Nelson said.  “Areas where we might try to enhance habitat for a variety of species like ospreys with the nesting platforms, restoring native prairie grasses to provide nesting for a huge variety of grassland nesting birds, neotropical song birds, game birds, whatever it may be, those funds are absolutely critical to do those things.”

Federal funds dedicated to wildlife restoration in the Great Lakes states have nearly doubled since 1999. The tax collections took off following 9/11, said Connie Owings, an analyst with the U.S. Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.  It’s a supply and demand situation, she said, and “everybody wanted a gun, everybody wanted ammunition.”  The growing firearm and ammunition sales translated into steadily climbing wildlife protection funds.

But the spike in gun and ammunition sales following last year’s presidential election may lead to a new windfall for the region.

While firearm sales naturally peak during the hunting and holiday season, 2008 saw a dramatic upswing in firearm sales in November and December.

totalsales1

National gun and ammunition sales data are not available, but the FBI reports background check requests for firearm purchases.  Those requests increased by 30 percent immediately following the presidential election.  This rise in firearm queries was later mirrored by an increase in taxes collected from manufacturers and importers; taxes collected last January through March were 43 percent greater than the amount collected over the same period in 2008.

Obama’s voting record as a state senator, and later as a U.S. senator, has gun enthusiasts concerned, and explains the run on guns and ammunition, said Vickie Cielpak, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association.  “There’s a general distrust of the Obama administration to uphold the second amendment.  Gun owners are politically savvy people and they realize that the administration poses a risk.”

While the tax was established by hunters, for hunters, many non-hunters are chipping into the pool.  “People who buy a firearm for self protection and have no interest whatsoever in wildlife are still contributing,” Nelson said.  Still, he said, the non-hunters benefit from wildlife restoration. “When we do things like restore floodplain habitat … it also improves water quality by reducing sedimentation and non point source pollution,” he said. “These things that are wildlife oriented have benefits far beyond folks who are interested in wildlife or just wildlife habitat.”

About Sarah Coefield

Sarah Coefield has been a reporter with the Great Lakes Echo since May, 2009. She also works as an editorial intern for Environmental Health News. Before coming to the Echo, Sarah climbed trees and pestered great horned owls as part of her master's research in environmental toxicology. Sarah is originally from Montana and completed her undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash.

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  • Don Brown

    I concur with John Freeland”s observation that the increase in firearms purchases began prior to President Obama’s election and continued a fairly steady upward pace thereafter. To link this to the election is not valid. Many factors including unease about the economy, the “war on terrorism”, the hate speach in some of the media and other factors might well outweigh who occupies the Whitehouse.

  • Sarah Coefield

    The graph shows funds doled out to Great Lakes states for the 1998-2009 fiscal years. They were collected from 1997-2008. The taxes from 2009 have not yet been distributed. The leap in funding will show up next year, once the Treasury has collected all the taxes and the USFWS divides it among states. I know some agencies will be looking at their preliminary apportionment next month so they can start making plans for how to use the money. I included the chart to give a visual of the general upward trend over the past several years. I hope that clears up any confusion!

  • John Freeland

    Looking at the Great Lakes state graph, it appears the sharpest upturn occurred between mid-2007 and mid-2008, before Obama was elected. The most recent segment, 2008-2009, actually shows some levelling off.