If American environmental groups want to reduce pollution, stave off the worst impacts of climate change, and preserve wild lands, they ought to do something that many of their staffers and major supporters will find hard at a time when groups like the NRA are under attack: embrace gun culture. The environmental movement had its greatest successes and enjoyed the most public esteem when it was, in large part, a hunters’ movement. Returning to those roots would broaden the appeal of conservation and advance the cause of environmental protection.
Consider the history of the movement. Big-game hunter Theodore Roosevelt is generally considered its founder. One major environmentalist group, Ducks Unlimited, considers the promotion and protection of duck hunting its primary mission. Another, the National Wildlife Federation, owes its foundation mostly to hunters and anglers. A longstanding federal tax on ammunition provides nearly $1 billion a year for conservation — the largest federal revenue stream devoted solely to this purpose.
For all of the close associations between hunters and environmentalism, however, the practice of hunting has declined even as environmental groups have grown. The percentage of adults who hold certified, paid hunting licenses has fallen by almost 50 percent since the 1950s, when the federal government first began recording it. While the total number of firearms in private possession has increased, the number of households that own firearms has also fallen from nearly 50 percent in the early 1970s to about 30 percent today.
Today, those who own guns are disproportionately conservative — 56 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning households have guns, as compared to 30 percent of Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center. They tend to be unsympathetic to the environmentalist agenda and to care deeply about their guns. A full quarter of gun owners consider firearms extremely important to their identity, Pew finds, and an astounding 95 percent of self-described conservative gun owners consider firearms “essential to their sense of freedom.” Polls show these same conservatives to be skeptical of most environmentalist stances on issues ranging from climate change to water regulation. And the increasing narrowness of the population of gun owners means that hunting is more tied to guns in general than it was in the past: Most hunters consider guns important for personal protection, while many also take part in range sports.
Hunters and conservationists are natural allies.
The increasing divergence between environmentalists and hunters is unfortunate. Without hunting, the obvious usefulness to humans of large areas of wilderness becomes more limited. An individual can only really “use” a relatively small area of wilderness for activities like hiking and camping. On the other hand, preserving wildlife — particularly the animals most popular among sport hunters — requires large-scale conservation. An adult male grizzly bear needs from 300 to 500 miles of land to live; the survival of migratory waterfowl flocks requires vast areas of wetlands all over the country. Hunters and conservationists are natural allies.
Indeed, it’s not a coincidence that environmentalism was a lot more popular when more Americans hunted: Key 1970s amendments to the Clean Air Act passed the Senate unanimously, and the early versions of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts received majority support from both parties, with even rock-ribbed conservatives like Barry Goldwater eager to burnish their environmental credentials.
In this context, simply accepting hunters and their guns — as nearly all environmental groups do already — isn’t enough. The environmental movement needs to embrace the cause of gun rights. While full-throated Second Amendment advocacy is beyond the brief of a typical environmental group, the close historic relationship between hunting and conservation means that some issues important to Second Amendment activists should also be important to the cause of environmental protection. Efforts to ban arms sales altogether, limit ammunition purchases, and shut down gun shows seriously hurt the ability of people to go hunting. While there’s no environmental reason to take a position on handguns, bump stocks, or “assault weapons,” a 21-to-purchase requirement for all guns would very likely reduce the number of people introduced to hunting. Major environmental groups have generally opposed opening more national parks up to hunting — about 85 percent of them ban it — and that is something they should reconsider as well. Even efforts that may be of genuine environmental benefit, such as the Obama administration’s now-rescinded ban on lead ammunition, should be questioned if they make hunting harder. While genuinely endangered species do deserve protection from hunting, trying to limit the hunting of non-endangered creatures based on “traditional range” and similar factors hurts relations with a constituency worth courting.
A progressive, urban, and affluent environmental movement will have a difficult time achieving its aggressive goals without a growing, well-aligned population of hunters. To do this, it should embrace guns.