A Sportsman’s Viewpoint: We Need a Moderate Alternative to the NRA

Many hunters would support sensible reforms against large-magazine firearms but have no organization that speaks for them

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Michael Melford

I used to live in the country and go to a gun club for the skeet and trap shooting. I went there on Sundays because that was the only day the club was open to nonmembers. Like many shooting clubs, this one would only grant membership if I also joined the National Rifle Association. That wasn’t going to happen. While I like some of the NRA’s youth gun-safety programs, I cannot support its policy aims.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 13.7 million people went hunting in the U.S. last year, a nearly 5% increase from 2001. By contrast, the NRA has 4 million members. There are likely plenty of reasons why two-thirds of hunters (as well as millions of gun owners) don’t belong to the group, apathy and financial hardship among them, but politics undoubtedly play a role. And reaching out to pro-hunting moderates is perhaps our best hope for ending the national stalemate over gun control.

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“I don’t know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle,” West Virginia Senator Joe “Dead Aim” Manchin said on Morning Joe,one of several pro-gun politicians who have started to speak out in favor of sensible reforms after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “I don’t know anybody that needs 30 rounds in the clip to go hunting.”

Neither do I. And I’m guessing the same is true for many other sportsmen.

Unfortunately, this constituency has no organization speaking to and for it. That’s why if philanthropists and influential leaders really want to do something about gun safety, they should launch an advocacy group for sportsmen that will provide a legitimate alternative to today’s gun lobby. The solution to our gun problem is not to try to fight through the same old politics — rather, it’s to change the political landscape.

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A moderate sporting organization could oppose knee-jerk proposals like banning “semiautomatic” guns (a class that includes many legitimate sporting arms) while supporting common-sense steps to improve public safety, including the strict regulation of — or even prohibition against — the sale of large-magazine firearms that have no legitimate sporting use. At the same time, such an organization could take on all the issues of more immediate concern to sportsmen than the Second Amendment, in particular the loss of wildlife habitat. The NRA and its even more radical cousins are pretty much exclusively focused on maintaining access to all kinds of firearms and ammunition. It’s an economic agenda to preserve the interests of the companies that make these products, not a pro-sportsmen’s agenda to preserve natural resources and open space; the gun lobby frequently supports politicians with horrendous records on environmental issues. Its narrow focus, as Field & Stream columnist George Reiger observed a few years ago, could lead us to become a nation where people can have “a closet full of guns with no place but a shooting range to use them.”

It’s worth noting that hunters have tried to start a pro-gun-control group before. Ray Schoenke, who used to play for the Washington Redskins and ran for governor in Maryland, launched the American Hunters and Shooters Association in 2005; it was defunct by 2010. Monster.com founder Andrew McKelvey started a similar group, Americans for Gun Safety, that quickly fizzled (before merging with the centrist D.C. think tank Third Way). Both of these organizations were hamstrung by having close ties with traditional gun-control organizations, and that made them an easy target for the gun lobby.

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A moderate alternative to the NRA would need authenticity to succeed. And deep pockets too. It would also help if the leader of this new organization could motivate young people to help change the status quo. (Mass shootings may grab our attention, but day-to-day gun violence is the major reason why homicide is the second leading cause of death, after accidents, among young adults.) That’s why I’m nominating Mark Zuckerberg to take up this cause. He’s rich, he has tons of social capital, and in 2011 he pledged to spend a year eating only meat from animals that he had killed. He said he did this to challenge himself to be more thankful for what he has and to be more thoughtful about how we live — ideas sadly lost on today’s gun lobby.