Criticism of bill repealing excise tax on guns and ammo off-target

(Brian Gehring /The Bismarck Tribune via AP, File)

A few weeks ago I had the chance to talk with Rep. Andrew Clyde about his new RETURN (Repealing Excise Tax on Unalienable Rights Now) our Constitutional Rights Act, which would repeal all federal taxes on firearms and ammunition, including the $200 tax stamp for NFA items and the 11% excise tax on guns and ammo imposed through the Pittman-Robertson Act, which is used to fund things like wildlife restoration, conservation, and hunter education. It’s not that Clyde is opposed to those programs; his issue is with the fact that extra taxes are being levied on the exercise of a constitutionally protected right.

To hear many critics of the proposal, however, Clyde and the more than 50 Republican co-sponsors of the bill are launching an attack on the outdoors community, including hunters.

Jack Connelly from Blackfoot is a former Idaho Fish and Game Department biologist and an avid outdoorsman who can attest to the effectiveness of this funding.

“In my 30 years with the agency, I have seen these funds used to enhance populations of a variety of wildlife species including mule deer, elk, sage grouse and waterfowl,” Connelly says. “As an example, if you travel through Idaho’s sagebrush uplands you are likely to see fences with small, highly visible markers. These were placed to reduce fence collisions by sage grouse. Research showed that they reduced these collisions by over 80% and this important work was supported by Pittman-Robertson funds. Since 1939, the Idaho Fish and Game Department reports that it has received $263.6 million in Pittman-Robertson funds, including $21.3 million in fiscal year 2022, a large proportion of the agency’s annual budget.”

The reaction to this proposed bill from those who hunt and fish has been the equivalent of a firestorm. Among Boebert’s Colorado constituency, there’s the example given by Adam Gall, a licensed outfitter, urging residents to ask Boebert why she’s “going against the longstanding wishes of past and current generations in supporting a bill that would be devastating to our state’s and our nation’s incredible and unprecedented outdoor heritage.”

Here’s my issue with this argument; the RETURN our Constitutional Rights Act wouldn’t stop funding these projects. It would simply replace the current funding mechanism with one that doesn’t involve taxing those who exercise their Second Amendment rights. In fact, Clyde has been up front about that fact from the get-go. Here’s a portion of his initial press release touting the new bill.

Since the current firearms tax revenue funds beneficial programs under the Pittman-Robertson Act, such as hunter education and environmental care, this legislation redirects unallocated lease revenue generated by onshore and offshore energy development on federal lands, which currently flows into the general fund, to continue funding those important programs.

Now, it is true that under Clyde’s legislation, at least as it’s currently written, the new revenue stream for these programs would be capped at $800-million each year, and could actually be less than that depending on the lease revenues received by the federal government. That’s about half of the $1.5-billion in revenue received through Pittman-Robertson and the Sport Fish Restoration Act last year, but is in line with the previous record high of $808-million collected in 2015.

There’s certainly a case to be made that Clyde’s legislation would impact programs funded through the Pittman-Robertson Act, but it’s unfair and incorrect to leave the impression that the bill would simply eradicate these programs altogether.

So where exactly is that idea coming from? Well, the group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is opposed to Clyde’s bill, and their “action alert” to members fails to disclose Clyde’s new source of funding for wildlife and conservation programs. Coincidentally (or not), Adam Gall, the Colorado outfitter who bashed Lauren Boebert for supporting the measure, is highly involved with BHA, and the organization itself has been criticized by conservatives who’ve accused the outfit of being an environmental group disguised as an outdoors association and run by longtime Democrat operatives. As Sean Davis wrote at the Federalist in 2019:

… Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), a non-profit run by Land Tawney, a Montana Democratic operative and former Obama presidential campaign surrogate. In 2012, Tawney ran the Montana Hunters and Anglers PAC, which spent seven figures to defeat Tester’s Republican challenger at the time.

According to Federal Election Commission Records, 100 percent of the expenditures from Tawney’s PAC–nearly $1.2 million–were used to oppose Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, Tester’s opponent. The BHA chairman, Ryan Busse, served as a formal Tester campaign surrogate during the Democratic incumbent’s 2018 re-election campaign. Critics of BHA derisively refer to it as a “green decoy,” an organization that presents as pro-hunter but actually exists to push conventional left-wing environmental policies.

“Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) represents itself as good-ole-boy outdoorsmen who simply want to hunt and fish and be left alone,” the Environmental Policy Alliance (EPA) writes on the website GreenDecoys.com. “But don’t be fooled. As evidenced by both its sources of funding and current leadership, BHA is nothing more than a big green activist organization pushing a radical environmentalist agenda.”

If the name “Ryan Busse” rings a bell, it’s because he’s the former Kimber executive who’s now a part of the gun control group Giffords’ leadership.

Look, this group has every right to oppose Clyde’s legislation, but the fact that their argument intentionally leaves out the fact that the bill contains a new source of revenue to offset the losses of the excise tax funds raises all kinds of questions in my mind about the real motivation behind their opposition. Is it truly because they’re convinced that passage of the RETURN our Constitutional Rights Act would be “devastating” to wildlife conservation programs, or is the fact that this is a bill pushed by a MAGA Republican (and gun store owner) that has them so hot and bothered?

Either way, Clyde’s legislation is going nowhere while Democrats still maintain control of the House, but given that Republicans are likely to be in charge come next year, it’s not too early to rebut some of the misinformation about the bill that’s already being spread by its opponents.