The best thing for hunters would be the erosion of the National Rifle Association's clout, which suddenly looks possible amid widespread protests calling for new gun laws. 

This past fall, I needed a specific tool for my muzzleloader and blackpowder season was a few days out. My friend and I were running errands and finding said tool became a bit of an odyssey. We stopped at no less than four gun shops before giving up.

Throughout our tour, my friend — who doesn't hunt but isn't opposed to firearms — grew increasingly uncomfortable with the aggressive messaging that targeted people like us.

Through signs, clothing, stickers and even conversations at the counter, the message was hostile and clear. There are two types of citizens: "Real Americans," who are all-in with NRA scripture. And then there's the rest of society, the enemy.

We were the latter, among the solid majority that, polls show, favor stricter gun laws. 

The number of American hunters has plummeted in the past quarter century. This past week, National Public Radio reported the percentage of Americans who hunt fell from 7.3 percent in 1991 to 4.4 percent in 2016. The trend squares with what's happening in Iowa. In 2005, Iowa sold 189,972 hunting licenses, according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources. That number fell to 143,532 in 2017.

The precipitous decline in hunters poses a very real issue for all of society as conservation funds dry up. It's no coincidence that the public face of NRA shifted from your kindly hunting instructor to something much more menacing as the number of hunters dropped nationwide. Like any organization, the NRA's primary goal is the promulgation of its own existence. And the growing economic frustration particularly among rural Americans was begging to be tapped. 

The NRA no longer speaks for hunters. But it also dictates the terms within which the very tools of hunting are debated. 

There are real world costs to the decline in hunting. Iowa Legislature has jacked up licensing fees in an attempt to make up for the declining number of hunters. And still, the state's revenue from hunting keeps falling, to the tune of $500,000 from 2005 to 2015. 

The NRA says that it's the "liberals" who are politicizing guns. But history belies that claim. Throughout the past two decades, the NRA has grown increasingly bold in its marketing and lobbying. The promotion of hunting and gun safety are nothing but obligatory mentions now in NRA literature. No, it's all about some non-existent conspiracy to rob Americans of their Second Amendment rights. Suddenly, a federal assault weapon ban, which existed between 1994 and 2004, is conflated with a constitutional attack without a single legal precedent to support the link. At statehouses, the NRA scores win after win, tearing down even the most common sense barriers to weapon possession in courtrooms and public buildings. The organization's hostility toward survivors of a recent school shooting, who happen to disagree with NRA doctrine, is just another example. 

It's the NRA that's politicized guns. And it's doing long-term damage to hunting in the process, the primary means through which states fund conservation programs.

The various reasons most cited for the decline are many and complex. Americans are more urban and less involved in processing their own food. The old gender roles have collapsed, too. 

But I can't help but believe that the weaponization of gun politics acts as a barrier to would-be new hunters. It's hard, after all, to enter into a new culture when inclusion demands complete and total adherence to a strict set of beliefs, even at the point-of-sale. 

Hunting isn't a religion, it's a time-honored pastime. But for the NRA's binary politics, which have infected gun culture almost completely, there is no middle ground. You're either among its flock or an apostate. 

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Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at jalexander@qctimes.com


Editorial Page Editor

Editorial Page Editor, Quad-City Times