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The fight for the soul of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus

Congress’ largest policy and social club was founded to be a voice for conservation. So why does it spend so much time on gun politics?

Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus co-chair Rep. Tim Walz, right, embraces the vast policy differences between members of Capitol Hill’s largest club: “You need counterintuitive coalitions to get to a common goal.”
Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation

If you’re running for political office in America, camo is a good look. If a candidate can pull it off, it communicates that he or she is humble, earthy, in touch with the spirit of Real America. And if you can’t pull it off, you’re bumbling, a city slicker, an instant punchline — ask John Kerry.

The 1,000 congressmen, lobbyists, and assorted D.C. types assembled in a Washington ballroom one night in early October, it’s safe to say, have all pulled it off. The occasion: the annual banquet for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, a voluntary club of congressmen who advance the interests of America’s hunters and fishermen in Congress.

It wasn’t your typical D.C. banquet affair — most of them don’t raffle off specialty rifles and crossbows alongside cruises — but then again, the Sportsmen’s Caucus isn’t your typical caucus. Most congressional caucuses are symbolic and rarely active. At nearly 290 members — a majority of the entire United States Congress — the Sportsmen’s Caucus is by far the largest on Capitol Hill.

The theme of the dinner was “Honoring Sportsmen and Women: America’s True Conservationists.” For many members of the caucus — including its co-chair, Rep. Tim Walz — preserving America’s natural environment and animal habitats is the key focus of the caucus.

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To the lobbyists and industry representatives present, however, the event is something like hitting the jackpot: access to scores of members of Congress, from both parties, from impressionable freshmen to seasoned vets, all gathering in one room around a shared interest. The “title sponsors” of the banquet — those who forked over the most cash to the foundation — were the National Shooting Sports Foundation and Vista Outdoor Inc. Respectively, they are the country’s second-largest gun lobby and one of its largest ammunition manufacturers.

The banquet is a distillation of the tension at the heart of the Sportsmen’s Caucus: it pursues a stated mission of conservation, but expanding hunting opportunities is good for retailers, and good for gun manufacturers — and gives the latter an opportunity to burnish its image as standard-bearer of a time-honored American tradition. Not to mention easy access to sympathetic ears in Congress.

That access comes in the form of numerous opportunities that exist for gun industry representatives to interact with caucus members. The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation — the nonprofit charitable group that holds the banquet and provides research and other services to the caucus — is heavily supported by the gun industry. It’s come under scrutiny from pro- gun-control activists for being too cozy with the gun lobby and pursuing an explicit political agenda.

Some in the caucus — like Walz — admit that this kind of gun politics has undermined the caucus’ work in the past. In the face of increased scrutiny of the gun lobby — and its increased power and influence — can the Sportsmen’s Caucus separate the volatility of gun politics and the gun lobby from its mission of conservation and hunting tradition? Does it even want to?

A conservationist caucus

The biggest extra-curricular club on Capitol Hill began in 1988, established by a Democrat, Rep. Lindsay Thomas of Georgia, and a Republican, Rep. Richard Schulze of Pennsylvania. The idea was to focus on traditional issues hunters and fishermen cared about: public land access and conservation of those lands to ensure availability of game to hunt and fish.

Seventh District Rep. Collin Peterson, a longtime caucus member and former co-chair, says it was formed partly out of sportsmen’s desire to influence environmental policy. “People back at that time thought the environmental people had too much say about things, and conservation people who were more interested in wildlife and hunting weren’t being listened to,” he says.

Shortly after the caucus was founded, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, was established to serve as a resource for members of the caucus: providing research, connections with the hunting and fishing industry, and a way to raise tax-exempted money for caucus activities.

The caucus and the foundation are separate entities, but they have steadily grown together in the years since their foundings. Both have worked hard to expand the sportsmen’s legislative focus beyond Washington: beginning in the 1990s, congressional leaders worked to establish legislative caucuses on the state level. Today, the National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses is active in every statehouse except Rhode Island and Hawaii. 33 governors are members of the Governor’s Sportsmen’s Caucus.

In Washington, 286 lawmakers — 61 senators and 225 House members — count themselves as members of the Sportsmen’s Caucus. Its leaders, members, and sponsors laud the bipartisan composition of the group at almost every opportunity: they routinely refer to it as the “most bipartisan group on the Hill,” and as a healthy antidote to the partisan antipathy that dominates Washington.

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For the most part, the praise is not unfounded: about 50 congressional Democrats are members, and the leadership is divided equally among the parties. Among the Minnesota delegation, Democratic Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar are members, as are Republican Reps. John Kline, Erik Paulsen, and Tom Emmer. Along with Walz and Peterson, Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan is a member.

Mixed legislative focus

There might be no other caucus that is quite as reflective of the whole legislative branch than the Sportsmen’s, says Walz, who has served as one of four co-chairs of the caucus since the beginning of 2015. “The caucus includes people who would characterize themselves as environmentalists, and then there are other people who characterize themselves as deer hunters — straight up,” Walz says.

For the most part, members of the caucus broadly agree on key conservation issues. Walz and other members frequently classify conservation as the most important thing they focus on. In his chairmanship, Walz has sought to put a special focus on how outdoor activities from hunting to hiking benefit local economies.

Since 2011, the centerpiece of the Sportsmen’s Caucus’ agenda has been the so-called Sportsmen’s Package, a bill containing a collection of the group’s most desired items. Members of the caucus have introduced versions of the legislation in the past three Congresses; none have passed.

Broadly, the package focuses on specific policy points that would benefit hunters, fishermen, and their associated industries. There isn’t much in the way of substantial conservation measures, but there are several items that would give hunters more opportunities to hunt while facing fewer restrictions and penalties from the government.

A top-line item in the bill, for example, would give states more power to build shooting ranges on public land. Another section mandates that lands managed by certain federal agencies be automatically open to hunting and fishing unless specifically closed. Another directs federal funds to improve access to hunting areas that are difficult to get to. The two most conservation-oriented components of the bill would simply reauthorize existing government conservation programs, like the National Wetlands Conservation Act.

Perhaps the most contentious item in the package — and the first one listed on the foundation’s website — is anathema to many advocates of the environment: it would strike Environmental Protection Agency restrictions on the use of ammunition and fishing tackle that contains lead. It would also prevent the government from setting future lead content restrictions in most cases. Environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, questioned why a bill that would make the use of lead more prevalent would be promoted by a group ostensibly interested in environmental conservation.

Beyond that, a report from the nonpartisan, in-house Congressional Research Service called the bill’s language relating to use of public lands “imprecise” and said it could “allow any activity related to fishing, hunting or wildlife conservation to be conducted in wilderness areas.” Each version of the Sportsmen’s Package has been endorsed by various gun industry groups, including the National Rifle Association.

According to Walz, arguments within the caucus over topics like lead and the usage of federal land are some of the most heated ones they have. But he emphasizes it’s a positive process. “When we write our Sportsmen’s Bill, there’s some good, healthy tension about what should be included,” he said. “It’s how I think people would like to think all legislation is done…It brings us together around a common cause: we work together, fashion legislation, and then usher it through the process.”

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Wading into gun policy

Beyond the items that would simply give sportsmen more opportunities to use guns, ammunition, and fishing tackle, the Sportsmen’s Package isn’t exactly laden with controversial gun policy. While not everyone would agree that opening up more public lands to gun use is a good thing, it’s hardly as charged a topic as, say, a ban on assault weapons.

But there’s no denying that, at times, members of the caucus — and the foundation that provides them with research — has advanced a pro-gun agenda on those more contentious points.

On the foundation’s website, there is a walk-through of the caucus’ official history: it lists a 25-year record of successes, many of which were also clear victories for the gun industry.

On the federal level, the foundation praised caucus members for helping pass the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005. The law, which protects firearms manufacturers from litigation when their products are used to commit crimes, was hailed by the NRA as the most significant pro-gun law in 20 years.

The leanings of the foundation are further illuminated by the research it publishes to advise state legislators through the National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses. On the topic of assault weapons bans, analysis from the foundation came down strongly against them. “Such bans/limits come at high costs to firearm manufactures and consumers, with little to no evidence these measures reduce crime,” the official paper said.

The price of gun politics

At times, this special focus on gun policy appears to detract from the caucus’ ability to achieve its overall goals. Take the story of last year’s Sportsmen’s Package, which got derailed partly because of the lightning-rod effect of gun politics.

In July of 2014, the package had picked up 46 co-sponsors in the Senate and was expected to have plenty of votes to secure passage. As it advanced, however, senators attached nearly 100 amendments to the bill. Some were relevant to sporting — like one addressing the length of red snapper fishing season in the Gulf of Mexico — but others, like one that would have voided the District of Columbia’s strict gun control laws, were not.

To spare vulnerable members of his party from a vote on gun control in an election year, then-majority leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, pushed the bill for floor consideration without amendments, effectively killing it.

Senators from both parties, many of whom lined up to initially support the bill, descended into partisan finger-pointing over what went wrong. Looking back, Walz said that “two senators decided to make a gun issue on an obscure piece that I don’t think fit…one senator can change the whole dynamic.”

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The law has been re-introduced in both chambers this year, and the House version received a mark-up in committee last week — a key step on the way to consideration on the floor. Caucus members say they are determined to pass it this year.

Guns, firms and meals

In some ways, the caucus’ advocacy of gun rights makes sense; after all, the hunter can’t claim that trophy buck without access to plenty of ammo and the right to bring her rifle into its habitat. But to some advocates, the closeness between the caucus and the industry, fostered by the Congressional Sportmen’s Foundation, is unseemly.

Po Murray of Newtown, Connecticut, is one of those advocates. She was a parent at Sandy Hook Elementary School who helped start the Newton Action Alliance, a gun-control advocacy group, after the horrific school shooting occurred there in 2012. “It’s deplorable that members of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus would wine and dine and rub shoulders with gun executives,” Murray said.

Connections between the nonprofit Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and the broader firearms industry run deeper than an annual banquet, however. The activities of the Foundation — research, speaker series, etc. —  are underwritten by a long list of sponsors connected to the industry. They also contribute to the slate of fundraisers and recreational events that the foundation holds every year, such as the Annual Congressional Shootout, a welcome reception for new members of Congress, and a “Changing of the Guard” dinner to introduce new caucus leadership.

A New York Times report from 2013 showed the foundation touting to potential donors the rewards of contributing, suggesting a significant return on investment through access to legislators. That pitch continues to resonate: during the 2012-2013 fiscal year — the most recent year for which records are available — the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation collected over $3.5 million in contributions.

Sponsors may also get the opportunity to give informational presentations to members of Congress through the foundation. In April of this year, a representative from the American Suppressor Association, a trade group for manufacturers of devices that make gunshots quieter, gave a CSF-hosted “Breakfast Briefing” to members. He made the case that silencers — which reduce ear-damaging noise for hunters but were also favored tools for gangsters and spies — get an unfairly bad rap, and went on to detail the lengthy, bureaucratic regulatory process in place for purchasing them.

Jeff Crane, president of the foundation, said before the presentation that “there are some real threats not only to this industry, but to our gun culture that we continue to see potentially coming out of the federal government…we’re gonna ask you as members of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus to take a look at this issue.” The policy suggestion framing the industry talk was clear.

This kind of activity is common and totally legal, according to Matt Rumsey, senior policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that focuses on government transparency. “There are pretty clear rules about what they’re allowed and not allowed to do,” he says, most of which have to do with usage of additional government resources toward caucus or foundation activities. There’s no evidence that the Sportsmen’s Caucus or Foundation has violated any of these rules.

In a statement, the National Shooting Sports Foundation said that, like many other industries, they “openly work on Capitol Hill in a truly bipartisan way to represent their interest in preserving and protecting their hunting traditions,” adding that caucus members view the foundation as a “valuable resource.” A Walz spokesperson said in a statement that “interacting with folks who are experts in a variety of different issue areas is something members of Congress do every day as they weigh how policy decisions impact the lives of Americans.”

Gun-control activists aren’t buying it. “It seems like a clear conflict of interest to me,” says Ladd Everitt with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “Why we’re in this predicament…is because these guys want a free lunch and a free shoot,” he says, adding that the focus of the caucus would look much different if they were only interested in recreational shooting.

That point is a favored one for the gun lobby’s most vocal opponents in Congress, including Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat. He told the New York Times that the gun lobby’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.”

Murphy told MinnPost that an overwhelming majority of gun owners support background checks, something the NRA opposes. (The Sportsmen’s Caucus doesn’t have a clear position on the issue.) “Hunters in my state don’t want criminals owning guns,” he said. Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence played up the disconnect between hunters and the lobby: “For a group of moderate gun owners just interested in hunting and recreation, there is no institution to turn to right now in the pro-gun movement to forge that type of relationship,” he said.

Members deny undue influence

Tim Walz has a solidly pro-gun record in Congress: the NRA, which assigns a letter grade to each member, gave him an A. In a lengthy conversation with MinnPost, however, Walz was frank about the role of gun politics in the caucus and how it relates to its broader mission.

“We’re not shying away from it…but we won’t lose the Sportsmen’s Caucus over a fishing rod. We do lose it over guns sometimes,” he said.

Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation
Rep. Ron Kind, center, dismisses the idea that the gun lobby exerts an undue influence over the caucus.

Walz also disputed the basis of Murphy’s claim that the NRA doesn’t represent sportsmen.  “No doubt, the NRA is loud and has a place that is well known…but sportsmen fall across that spectrum,” he said. “This is part of what’s hard about this…everyone gets grouped together. If you have a gun position it’s either this position or that position, there’s no room on the continuum.”

Rep. Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat and former caucus co-chair, echoed Walz’s statements, and said the group is hardly captive to special interests. “I’ve never seen the gun lobby trying to exert undue influence or try to drive an agenda with the caucus,” he said. “We’re very protective of it… it would be wrong for any interest group, let alone the NRA, to co-opt the purpose of having the Sportsmen’s Caucus.”

Kind added that diversity of viewpoints was key to the health of the group. “We don’t pre-screen any of this… all the more reason we have to get together, to listen to each other, and focus on the common ground that does exist.”

“You need counterintuitive coalitions to get to a common goal,” Walz said.

Pushing back

Indeed, some caucus members push back openly against the gun lobby’s influence on the group.

Sen. Al Franken is one of a handful of Senate Democrats in the caucus, and in a statement he emphasized his support of “responsible gun ownership” and Minnesota’s “long tradition of hunting and recreation.”

Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan is perhaps one of the most liberal members of the caucus. He is a lifelong hunter and a self-described Second Amendment supporter, but he has been a bête noire for the gun-industry supporters of the foundation. Nolan has an F rating from the NRA for his support of various gun control measures like extensive background checks. The gun lobby spent millions trying to defeat him in 2014, and Nolan even says the NRA’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, spent several days in his district for that exact purpose.

Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation
Former Florida Rep. Steve Southerland with Reps. Rick Nolan and Tim Walz at the Congressional Shoot-Out and Industry Challenge in May 2015.

Nolan is as much a fan of the caucus as anyone, but as a progressive, he has a unique vantage point from which to give his take on the group’s politics. “One of the reasons why I like to become a part of the Sportsmen’s Caucus is to push back,” Nolan said. “It’s not all about having assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, we need public land set aside to conserve for hunting and fishing.”

“You can have all the guns you want, but if there isn’t any wild game out there, what are you gonna do with the sporting goods?”

History, tradition, heritage

There was no wild game on hand at the Sportsmen’s Caucus annual shoot-out this May, but there was plenty of trash talk: the popular event pits Republican and Democratic members against each other in a test of their marksmanship skills.

Introducing the Democratic team, Walz said “there’s fewer of us but we’re straighter shooters.” Ultimately, the Republicans would prove straighter, winning the competition, but Walz earned “Top Democratic Gun” honors. “Folks make up their mind that they don’t know you,” he told MinnPost, “so they assume because you’re a Democrat and you voted for health care…then you go out there and they’re like, ‘oh god, he can shoot.’”

The shoot-out illustrates something important: sure, the caucus works on conservation, it gets wrapped up in gun politics, but it’s really a club at heart. Most members just like hunting and fishing and being outside. They kind of like doing that stuff together, too. When they wax poetic about how hunting is deeply embedded in America’s DNA — which they do often — they truly believe it.

But the way hunters talk about hunting rights — history, tradition, heritage — is very similar to the way gun rights advocates talk about Second Amendment rights. In that sense, it will be very difficult for people like Walz to untangle the politics of guns from the politics of outdoor sports, even if they might want to.

Members say Walz is up to the task: “Tim is a unifying force and someone who’s able to pierce the intense polarization and partisanship that seems to define Congress,” Ron Kind says. “He is literally a straight shooter — he’s also one of the best shots we have in the caucus.”

Whatever the obstacles may be, the Sportsmen’s Caucus will keep plugging away at its legislative agenda. At the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation’s “Welcome to Congress” reception earlier this year, president Jeff Crane stood in front of members new and old and delivered the best pitch he could.

“When I think about what unites the East Coast and the West Coast with the heartland, Republicans and Democrats, it’s truly these issues of hunting,” he said. “We have come so close. It’s time to close this deal…we’re gonna fight like hell to get it done.”