The nationwide spending spree on guns and ammunition continues.
And that means the flow of dollars to Minnesota and other states from the federal excise tax on guns, ammo and archery equipment has turned into a flood.
This year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is expected to receive a record $23 million — nearly quadruple the amount it received only 10 years ago. Those dollars must be spent on wildlife projects and hunter education.
Nationally, the surge in gun and ammo sales — attributed primarily by concerns over gun-control efforts under the Obama administration — produced record excise tax revenues of $813 million last year, more than double the amount raised only two years earlier. The money is apportioned to states based on their size and number of hunters. Last year, only six states got more funds than Minnesota: Alaska, California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.
"It's a huge boon to wildlife programs," said Ed Boggess, DNR fish and wildlife division director.
Mike Bazinet, director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said there's been a decadelong increase in interest in shooting sports that has spiked the past five years. More women are buying guns, he said; hunter numbers also are up slightly and manufacturers have introduced new guns.
But the biggest reason for the surge in sales, many believe, was a backlash over gun-control proposals by the federal government that increased after Barack Obama's election in 2008 and followed the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut.
"There's no question people were concerned there were going to be new federal laws passed possibly to restrict their access to firearms or ammunition," Bazinet said. "As a result, they went out and purchased additional firearms and ammunition."
The tax revenue increases are sizable:
• The excise tax collected on pistols and revolvers jumped from $74 million in 2007 to $223 million last year.
• The tax from other firearms increased from $116 million in 2007 to $286 million last year.
• And the tax revenue from shells and cartridges increased from $98 million in 2007 to $252 million.
Gun owners cleaned out ammunition dealers, sparking shortages.
"The shortages are easing nationwide," Bazinet said. "Things are mostly back to normal."
What to do with the money?
The taxes have been collected since 1938 under the Pittman-Robertson Act, named for its congressional authors. Handguns are taxed 10 percent and other firearms, including rifles, shotguns and muzzleloaders, are taxed 11 percent. Ammunition and archery equipment also are taxed 11 percent. The manufacturers pay that tax upfront, but generally pass it on to consumers.
With last year's federal dollars, the DNR spend $7.5 million on wildlife habitat management, $2 million on wildlife population management, $1.6 million on wildlife land acquisition and $1.5 million on maintenance of hunter trails, access roads and water access.
For Minnesota officials, the question now is what to do with the extra money that has arrived and is yet to come.
The answer is complicated. For starters, the dollars don't just flow into state coffers.
"In order for us to get it, we have to first spend state dollars on approved projects," said Boggess, including habitat management, land acquisition for wildlife management areas, surveys and research on wildlife populations and hunter recruitment and retention efforts. "We get reimbursed 75 percent of our costs."
Unlike some states, Minnesota always has captured its full apportionment, Boggess said, partly because of spending on the state's 1.3 million acre wildlife management area system.
But the DNR is accustomed to getting about $11 million in federal funds and has budgeted for that amount. Last year, its share of federal excise tax was $16 million, so the agency needs to spend more money to get more money. Boggess said the DNR had enough projects to capture that amount without seeking additional spending dollars from the Legislature. He believes the agency can capture the $23 million available this year, too, without asking for more money.
But all of the federal dollars go into the DNR's Game and Fish Fund, and money in that account can only be appropriated by the Legislature.
"It isn't a checking account," Boggess said.
The difference between what was projected to come in and actual revenues will total about $15 million, an amount that will remain in the DNR's Game and Fish Fund until the Legislature decides how to spend it. It can only be used for fish and wildlife management purposes. If gun and ammo sales continue at higher-than-normal levels, that excess amount could increase.
"It's a windfall," Boggess said. "We need to be thoughtful and cautious about how this money gets spent."
He said the agency will have discussions with the Game and Fish Fund Budgetary Oversight Committee, a citizens panel, and the Legislature about how to use the money. It could be left in the account to help postpone future hunting and fishing license fee increases or spent on conservation projects.
"I think there will be some spirited discussions," Boggess said.
Meanwhile, no one expects the surge in gun and ammo sales — and resulting federal tax revenues — to continue, though officials say tax receipts in recent months remain strong.
"We don't know how long it will last, but it won't last indefinitely," Boggess said.