The ranks of hunters in the U.S. fell last year to a record low, the government reported yesterday, even as the estimated number of guns soared past one for every man, woman and child in the country.
About 13.7 million people hunted in 2011, a drop of 400,000 from 1991, when the nation had 60 million fewer people, the U.S. Census Bureau said. The survey highlights the power of the firearms lobby, which has successfully blocked major legislation even though the number of hunters and percentage of gun owners have fallen during the past two decades.
Congress and the White House are considering action after last week’s massacre of 20 children and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut. Hunters, whose firearm use has been cited to block gun-control legislation, may not be united in opposition to stricter control of military-style assault weapons, said Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.
“If you’re a hunter, and legislation doesn’t affect you, then it’s very easy to support banning a certain kind of gun,” said Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, a Rindge, New Hampshire-based gun-rights group. “If you’re just a shotgun person, you probably don’t have a problem if they ban those guns.”
The percentage of households with firearms has fallen from 54 percent in 1977 to 32 percent in 2010, according to the General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
President Barack Obama on Dec. 19 endorsed restricting assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips such as those used by the Newtown shooter, while putting Vice President Joe Biden in charge of a review that will include firearms regulation as well as mental-health issues.
Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and NRA member, said earlier this week he’s willing to vote for tougher weapons laws that probably would affect so-called recreational shooters who fire assault-type weapons at gun ranges. It wouldn’t have any impact on hunters, he said.
“I don’t know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle,” Manchin said on MSNBC television earlier this week. “I don’t know anyone that needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting.”
The NRA has successfully opposed the return of an assault-weapons ban that expired in 2004. In 2005, the association’s lobbyists helped pass a law limiting liability claims against gun makers. Sturm, Ruger & Co.’s chief executive officer, Mike Fifer, later said the law “is probably the only reason we have a U.S. firearms industry anymore.”
Almost 75 percent of gun owners have two or more firearms, according to the National Institute of Justice. The 2007 Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based international independent research project, estimated there are between 250 million and 290 million privately owned firearms in the U.S. There may be an additional 54 million purchased since then, based on background check data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The increase comes as hunting has declined with the loss of open land and higher costs for licenses and equipment, said William Vizzard, a professor of criminal justice at California State University in Sacramento.
“The nation is becoming more urbanized, and the places where you can hunt for free have declined greatly,” Vizzard said. “What we have is some people buying more guns.”
Many hunters love the sport for the outdoors, not the gun, said Lily Raff McCaulou of Bend, Oregon, the author of “Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner,” published in June. Hunters get stigmatized by gun-control advocates and marginalized by the NRA, she said.
“For a lot of people who aren’t familiar with hunters, they tend to think of us all as gun nuts,” McCaulou said in a telephone interview. “And we’re not. I think there’s a really big middle ground there -- people who are gun owners but support a lot of gun-control measures.”
The NRA, which claims 4 million members, has wanted to recruit more hunters, said Chris Knox, a columnist for Shotgun News. The NRA during the last year pushed for a wide range of legislation affecting them. It supported successful hunting-rights constitutional amendments in Idaho, Nebraska and Kentucky in November, as well as the creation of rules allowing silencers for Texas hunters earlier this year.
“Hunters are notoriously not joiners,” Knox said. “The traditional NRA shooter is the guy that takes an M1 rifle and crawls out onto the gravel range and shoots at a target.”
The Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA released a brief statement four days after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, saying it’s “prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.” The group said it plans to hold a news conference today.
A Pew Research Center survey released yesterday found that 37 percent of adults think the NRA has too much sway over gun-control laws; about 45 percent believe it has too little or an appropriate amount of influence. Opposition to the NRA was higher 12 years ago, when 42 percent of respondents said the group had too much power.
Officials at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms industry headquartered about three miles from the school in Newtown, declined to comment. A notice on the organization’s website said “it would be inappropriate for our organization to comment or participate in media requests at this time.”
Five states account for about one-quarter of all hunters, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service data compiled by Bloomberg: Texas, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Texas alone has almost 1.1 million hunters, more than any other state in the nation and a 6.1 percent increase over the last two decades.
Twenty-one states have registered an increase in hunters since 1991, led by Alaska, where the number of hunters has risen 92.7 percent to 106,000. The ranks of hunters in Connecticut rose at the third-highest rate, up 64 percent to 82,000 during that period.
South Dakota reported the highest percentage of hunters, at 20.9 percent of people older than 16, followed by Alaska at 20.2 percent and Mississippi with 19.7 percent. The states with the smallest percentage included Massachusetts, where 1.2 percent of the state’s residents said they hunt, and California, with 1.6 percent.
Both Massachusetts and California have strict gun-control laws, both for purchase and possession. Both states have outlawed assault rifles, and California lawmakers have proposed regulations on buying ammunition after the Connecticut massacre.
Ultimately, Vizzard said, hunters may be more challenged by a changing environment than gun-control legislation.
“When I was a kid, if you had a rifle or a shotgun, you got in your beat-up pickup truck and went into the woods,” he said. “Now it’s a safari, and you’ve got to go three states away to hunt.”