Five House Republicans have withdrawn as co-sponsors of a bill to repeal an excise tax on guns and ammunition that for decades served as the financial mainstay of the American model wildlife conservation.
“Sometimes you look at an invoice and, you know, it’s explained that it’s positive and you look at it a little further and you change your mind,” Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) told HuffPost at about its decision not to sponsor the legislation.
The legislation, dubbed the RETURN Act (Repeal of the Inalienable Duties Now Excise Tax) was introduced last month by Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) and dozens of other House Republicans. It targets a tax that manufacturers and importers of firearms and ammunition have paid for more than a century. Since the passage of the bipartisan Pittman-Robertson Act in 1937, the money collected through the tax – 11% on long guns, ammunition and archery equipment; 10% on handguns – was distributed to states to pay for wildlife management and research, habitat conservation, land acquisition, and hunter education.
Despite this long history and the popularity of the Pittman-Robertson Act among hunters, anglers, conservationists and the gun industry, Clyde and other sponsors have portrayed the tax as an attack on the second amendment.
In a statement announcing his bill, Clyde, who possesses a gun store in Georgia, argued that “no American should be taxed on their listed rights”. Eliminating the excise tax, he said, “would stop the tyranny of the left in its tracks.” (Apart from the fact that the legislation redirecting the tax was passed more than 80 years ago, the Robertson in the bill’s title was Absalom Willis Robertson, a conservative civil rights opponent who was also the father of televangelist Pat Robertson. .)
Rep. Elise Stefanik (RN.Y.), another co-sponsor and chair of the House Republican Conference, claimed the tax “infringes on Americans’ ability to exercise their Second Amendment rights and creates a dangerous opportunity for the government to militarize taxation to price this inalienable right beyond the reach of most Americans.
By pushing the boundaries of pro-gun, anti-tax politics, Clyde and his allies have unleashed a firestorm within the hunting, sport shooting and conservation communities. Several organizations were quick to condemn the bill and its sponsors. The Delta Waterfowl Foundation has circulated a petition who called Clyde’s bill “a clear threat to the well-established and widely popular ‘North American Model of Wildlife Conservation,’ widely recognized as the most successful wildlife conservation framework in the world.”
As the campaign to kill the legislation grew, the number of sponsors began to dwindle. After reaching 58 sponsors earlier this month, the bill dropped to 53. As of Thursday, five Republicans, including two of Clyde’s colleagues in the Georgia congressional delegation, had withdrawn their support: Representatives John Rutherford ( Florida), Markwayne Mullin (Okla.), Austin Scott (Ga.), Earl “Buddy” Carter (Ga.) and Grothman.
Grothman told HuffPost that it became clear that people were worried the bill would lead to a gap in conservation dollars and said he decided not to support the bill even though he didn’t think he would actually fund the Pittman-Robertson law.
“There is no reason to get involved in a debate on this bill at this time,” Grothman said. “I decided, ‘Why open this Pandora’s box?'”
The bill never had much of a chance of being passed. Still, it’s probably more common for a courier bill to gain sponsors over time, not lose them.
“That’s how democracy is supposed to work,” said Land Tawney, president and CEO of Montana-based Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “When unfortunate ideas are presented, people react, and in this case they resoundingly said no. That’s why this bill is going nowhere. Rep. Clyde should heed the actions of his colleagues and completely withdraw this misguided legislation.
Clyde’s office continued to defend the proposal, saying it would simply change the funding structure of the Pittman-Robertson programs. The legislation would reallocate up to $800 million in revenue from energy development on federal lands and waters to make up for lost gun tax funding.
But $800 million is just over half the $1.5 billion which the Department of the Interior is set to distribute to national wildlife agencies this year through the Pittman-Robertson Act and its fishing equivalent, the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act, in 2022 To date, the programs have allocated $25.5 billion for conservation and outdoor recreation projects.
Asked about GOP members dropping support, Madeline Huffman, spokeswoman for Clyde, said “it’s Too bad many media outlets and conservation groups have been spreading misinformation about the bill.
“The congressman is incredibly proud and grateful to have a quarter of the House Republican Conference supporting his legislation, and he will not be deterred by misinformation or nefarious intent in his pursuit both to protect the rights of the Americans’ Second Amendment and to fully preserve Pittman-Robertson,” she said via email.
While it’s clear that many of the bill’s sponsors have fielded angry calls and letters from voters, few have endured as much heat as Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.). More than a dozen hunting, fishing, angling and conservation groups in his home state have signed a letter urging the congressman to rescind his support, The Daily Montanan reported.
Rosendale still supports the bill. And in a recent town hall meeting by telephone, he would have called the measure a “win-win” and said it had his support because it would reduce the cost of firearms and ammunition.
Again, the tax is paid by manufacturers and importers, not consumers. And though Rosendale and others tout the potential savings for gun owners, they threatened to upend a decades-old framework for funding conservation across the country.
In May, well before the bill was introduced, a group of more than 40 hunting, outdoor recreation and gun advocacy organizations sent a letter to Senate and House leaders warning against any change to the status quo.
“We are united in our shared support for the current ‘user-pays-public benefits’ wildlife funding system,” reads the letter, which includes signatures from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Ducks Unlimited and the Boone and Crockett Club. “Among other things, generating all Pittman-Robertson funding from alternative sources would negatively impact our community’s unique relationship with state fish and wildlife agencies. Without the financial contributions of athletes and sports industry, the seat occupied at the decision-making table of hunters and recreational shooters risks being lost.