Backers of Sportsmen’s Legislation Frustrated by Gun Politics

Some advocates on and off the Hill don’t want gun issues attached to a sportsmen’s bill, which is currently stalled in the House in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Oct. 5, 2017, 8 p.m.

Advocates for sportsmen’s legislation are growing increasingly frustrated that their priorities have become entangled with the politics of guns, and both key lawmakers and some outside groups are calling for the two issues to be separated.

A high-profile sportsmen’s package in the House is now stalled in the wake of Sunday’s mass shooting at a concert in Las Vegas; many sportsmen’s groups themselves are only tepidly backing the bill, and some of them haven’t weighed in at all. That’s largely because the legislation includes controversial gun-deregulation provisions that would scale back restrictions on silencers and body-armor-piercing ammunition, while also expanding protections for interstate travel when carrying firearms.

Some Hill Republicans argue that those kinds of provisions simply don’t belong.

“We have tried for three Congresses now to advance a sportsmen bill, and for me it’s really about access to our lands to allow for more hunting, fishing, use of our public lands, and it should not be viewed as a vehicle for the gun-control debate,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski said. “I think that is what has sidelined it in Congresses past. My hope is that we will be able to avoid that.”

The Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement (Share) Act is staunchly backed by the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation. And some hunting and angler groups, such as the Safari Club, are enthusiastically going to bat for the bill.

But despite provisions to reauthorize wetlands-conservation law, require consideration of hunting and fishing in National Wildlife Refuge System additions, and bolster protections against fishing restrictions, other sportsmen’s groups are deploying a more hands-off strategy.

“We have supported the Share Act on process grounds so that we can get to negotiations with the Senate,” said Steve Kline, director of government relations at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We don’t have positions on many of the provisions in the Share Act, and we wish it had more conservation provisions. We tried to encourage House members to put more conservation provision in there.”

Trout Unlimited, an influential sportsmen’s group for more than a half century, is not taking a position on the Share Act.

“That has some of the gun stuff in there that will make it harder to pass,” said Steve Moyer, a government-affairs official with the group. “We’ve stayed away from that.”

The legislation, championed by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, is now stalled after passing through committee on partisan lines in mid-September. “It’s not on our schedule because, quite frankly, we’re focused on tax reform and getting our budget moving right now,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday.

The bill has become a lightning rod this week following the Las Vegas shooting, though Bishop and other proponents say the controversy surrounding the gun provisions is overblown and fictitious. Language on the silencers, also known as suppressors, is necessary to protect the hearing of hunters, they say. The bill received unanimous Republican support in Bishop’s committee.

But some Senate Republicans, like Murkowski, are pushing back on the legislation, indicating that it faces an even more precarious fate across the Capitol. And even with full Republican support in the Senate, the legislation would likely face a Democratic filibuster.

Sportsmen’s issues are largely noncontroversial, and the Senate has taken a different approach to the policy area this Congress. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso says he wants to move his own sportsmen’s legislation, a measure that sailed through committee with bipartisan support.

Kline and Moyer are passionate supporters of that legislation, called the Hunting Heritage and Environmental Legacy Preservation (Help) for Wildlife Act. The bill reauthorizes the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Establishment Act, and the Chesapeake Bay Program, among many other conservation programs.

“My focus for this Congress has been on the Senate and particularly on the Help Act,” Kline said, adding that his organization was prepared to “stay mum” on the Share Act until House Republicans amended the bill to include reasonable funding for the NAWCA.

Murkowski’s sprawling energy package also includes a range of conservation provisions, including an extension of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and both Kline and Moyer support that bill as well.

But so far, House Republicans aren’t indicating they intend to change tack. “I’m happy to wait until leadership schedules something,” Bishop said.

House Natural Resources ranking member Raul Grijalva argues Bishop’s legislation is a gun-lobby gift masquerading as a sportsmen’s bill. “He made an NRA bill instead of a sportsmen bill,” Grijalva said. “What we wanted to do is work out those particulars about access, about expanding hunting and recreational sportsmanship, i.e. anglers. And we were prepared to do that.”

Bishop’s fellow GOP committee members, however, also find no problem with the gun language, suggesting a path forward may prove elusive. Still, at least one member indicated a willingness to trim the gun language to facilitate passage.

“Ultimately, if that language is going to bring the bill down, then you’d need to have a discussion with the sponsors to determine, ‘Is it worth bringing the bill down or should we continue discussing it?’” said Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican supporter of the bill. “But again, it is frustrating here, and I think it happens here way too much, where actions are taken based upon emotion and fiction rather than what is fact.”

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