Charity Takes Gun Lobby Closer to Its Quarry
Guns and Congress: The Times’s Mike McIntire on the close relationship between members of Congress and a sportsmen’s charity pushing gun rights.
On a Monday evening in early February, two months into a national debate over gun violence after the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, representatives of the firearms industry were wining and dining lawmakers in Washington.
The occasion was the “Changing of the Guard” reception and dinner for the incoming leadership of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, which counts more than 250 membersin the House and Senate. Hosting the gathering was a little-known but well-connected organization, theCongressional Sportsmen’s Foundation.
Despite its low profile, the foundation has close ties to members of Congress, allowing its donors, who give as much as $100,000 a year, to mix with lawmakers at shooting contests, banquets and wine tastings. The food and drink at last month’s gathering were paid for in part by the National Rifle Association and the trade group for the gun industry.
Over the past year, sportsmen’s caucus members have clinked glasses and puffed cigars at a “Wine, Wheels and Wildlife” fund-raiser at a North Carolina vineyard, a “Whiskies of the World” and cigar reception on Capitol Hill, and a “Stars and Stripes Shootout” in Tampa, Fla., where the top shooting awards went to a Republican congressman and a lobbyist for the N.R.A. Such events provide the firearms industry and other foundation donors with a tax-deductible means of lobbying the elected officials who shape policies important to their businesses.
A private charity not affiliated with the government, the foundation carries the cachet of its relationship with the sportsmen’s caucus in Congress, which it provides with research on policies affecting hunting and fishing. But while ostensibly focused on those outdoor pursuits, it also presses issues important mainly to the gun industry, which is one of its largest contributors.
The foundation opposes restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines, a ban on military-style AR-15 rifles and the imprinting of bullets with traceable serial numbers to help solve crimes. All of those proposals have surfaced in the current legislative debate, which is expected to continue Thursday when a Senate Judiciary Committee considers a bill to curb illegal gun trafficking.
The foundation says its positions fit naturally with its mission “to work with Congress, governors and state legislatures to protect and advance hunting, recreational angling, and shooting and trapping.”
“There is significant overlap between access to firearms and the ability to participate in hunting and recreational shooting activities,” it said in a statement.
Others see the linkage to hunting as part of a calculated effort by the firearms industry to advance policies that have little to do with outdoor sports. Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., a New Jersey Democrat who as a co-chairman of the law enforcement caucus has butted heads with the sportsmen’s caucus on gun issues, said pro-gun groups had stoked fear in Congress by portraying any limits on firearms as a threat to legitimate pastimes like hunting.
“They see this as if they give in on any one item, it will put them on a slippery slope to coming into your home and taking your guns away,” Mr. Pascrell said. “They’re creating hysteria.”
Lawmakers have long formed caucuses on specific subjects as varied as drug addiction and capital gains taxes. Special interests often press their cases with caucus members, sometimes through receptions, trips and fund-raisers. But most caucuses do not have foundations or institutes set up specifically for that purpose, and financed with private contributions.
Established in 1989 as the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus Foundation — the word “caucus” was dropped in 1994 — the foundation is a nonprofit charity under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, meaning it can accept unlimited, tax-deductible donations. Its charitable purpose, according to tax records, is to “provide scientific research, wildlife management, public education and conservation information.” It says it does this by giving nonpartisan “advice, support and information” to the sportsmen’s caucus and elected state officials.
Many of its programs focus on wildlife conservation, on open space and on hunting, including an annual report on its economic benefits. It has held briefings or issued policy statements on opening public lands and waterways for hunting and fishing, easing limits on imports of skins and other trophies from polar bear hunting and opposing regulation of the lead content in fishing-line sinkers. But it also backs gun-industry positions whose relevance to its historical focus on hunting and fishing is indirect at best.
The foundation president, Jeff Crane, declined to be interviewed. But in written responses to questions, the foundation said that “limiting the purchase of firearms and ammunition has a direct impact on state-based professional fish and wildlife management” because it would mean less revenue from federal excise taxes, which finance those programs. Many hunters and target shooters also use rifles that gun-control advocates would classify, wrongly, as assault weapons, it said.
“It has become increasingly important to ensure that the interests of recreational shooters are represented,” the foundation said.
The foundation’s board has included top executives of Freedom Group, the largest American maker of firearms, and ATK, the country’s biggest producer of ammunition. In 2010, the foundation disclosed that its most generous donor in its history was the gun industry’s trade association. (It said last week that another donor, which it would not identify, had since taken top honors.)
Contributions ballooned from $434,000 in 2001 to more than $2 million in 2011, with its top-tier donors including firearms makers and retailers like Remington, Winchester and Walmart. Other high-level donors include the N.R.A., outdoor groups like Safari Club International, and ExxonMobil, Amgen and Altria.
The foundation is blunt in its appeal to donors. Its Web site says that “no organization has access to so many elected officials,” adding that “we know how important it is to have an effective voice in the political arena looking out for your interests.”
“Our promise to you is to keep delivering big returns on your investment,” the foundation said in a message to donors.
In a 2004 update to donors, the foundation explained that it had decided to “increase the value” of one of its shooting events by moving it closer to Washington so industry executives could “interact with members of Congress.”
“For the 150 industry representatives that attended the 2004 events, the move was well worth it,” it said. “During the shootout, industry teams were paired with the members of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus.”
The foundation has also branched out to provide a similar bridge between its financial supporters and state legislatures. It sponsors an annual gathering with legislators, held last year at a resort in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where activities included a wild hog hunt, surf fishing and the firing of guns with silencers provided by the American Silencer Association.
In its written responses to questions, the foundation said it is in touch with members of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus on “an as-needed basis,” depending on pending legislation and the needs of “the sporting community.” Its “focus while interacting with members of the caucus is to provide them with information and to educate them on issues of importance to sportsmen,” it said.
As with most Congressional caucuses, members of the sportsmen’s caucus do not vote in lock step, and many do not take part in the foundation’s social events. There are also differences of opinion among caucus leaders on ways to address gun violence.
Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, a co-chairman of the caucus, is also a member of the House Democrats’ task force on preventing gun violence, supports a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and has an F rating from the N.R.A. — making him, he acknowledged, a “rare breed” in the caucus.
But as a lifelong hunter, Mr. Thompson said, he enjoys attending sportsmen foundation events and has no trouble spending time with representatives of the N.R.A. and other special interests that pay for them.
“They don’t have any influence over me,” he said. “I see them at social functions and gatherings. They’ve been very supportive of a lot of the issues the caucus is interested in, even if we don’t agree 100 percent on everything.”
In contrast to Mr. Thompson, the House Republican co-chairman of the sportsmen’s caucus, Representative Bob Latta of Ohio, has an A-plus N.R.A. rating and has expressed skepticism about any new gun restrictions. He declined to be interviewed.
The caucus is regularly used as a launching pad in Congress for pro-gun legislation. The sponsor and all 27 original co-sponsors of a 2005 bill that shielded the firearms industry from liability suits were caucus members. More than 100 members co-sponsored the Second Amendment Enforcement Act, which was aimed at rolling back gun control measures in Washington, D.C., but died in committee in 2011.
Also in 2011, caucus members wrote amendments that would have prevented gun dealers from having to report customers who make multiple purchases of certain weapons in states bordering Mexico, and would have rolled back restrictions on imports of shotguns with tactical features like extended magazine tubes. The N.R.A. issued a statement praising the amendments’ authors, Representatives Denny Rehberg of Montana and John Carter of Texas, both Republicans.
“Representative Carter, like Representative Rehberg, is a member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, and believes that federal gun regulations often create burdens for law-abiding citizens,” the N.R.A. said. The N.R.A. declined to comment on its relationship with the caucus and foundation.
Senator Christopher S. Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who has been highly critical of the gun industry’s influence in Washington, said the N.R.A.’s “association with the sportsmen’s caucus plays up this mythology that they speak for sportsmen when, increasingly they don’t.”
“They represent views that help gun manufacturers,” he said.
Last year, the N.R.A. was a “titanium” donor to the sportsmen’s foundation, giving at least $50,000. That was one level below the $100,000 “platinum” category.
The N.R.A. ranked higher in the foundation’s sport shooting competition with Congressional staff members: its chief lobbyist won a top honor for target shooting at the 2012 event, sharing that distinction with legislative aides to four House members and a senator.