SALT LAKE CITY — The post-Sandy Hook rush to purchase assault rifles, handguns and loads of ammunition, as well as the increased interest in all things archery, have combined to produce a cash windfall in the millions for Utah.
Many, many millions.
Some call it the "Obama bump" — the fear of tighter gun control laws flowing back to the states via federal excise taxes levied on "shooting sports" equipment such as guns, ammunition and archery equipment.
Just a few short years ago, the state Division of Wildlife Resources was receiving about $6.5 million through the Pittman-Robertson Fund to promote wildlife preservation.
Division Director Greg Sheehan told a legislative committee he expects the agency will get as much as $14 million this next fiscal year, based on preliminary numbers provided by the federal government.
Lawmakers were combing through the division's various accounts as part of the annual budget review process when they noticed the drastic spike in one particular category.
Sheehan explained that the "societal" concern that President Barack Obama would institute gun reform led to a spate of panic buying after his initial election in 2008 and again in the aftermath of the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"With all the shootings around the country, there has been a lot of discussion about changing the gun laws," he said later. "There was a rush on retailers for fear certain guns and ammunition would be outlawed."
That crush at the cash register adds up to dollars for local wildlife conservation and for the promotion of shooting sports programs, including archery.
Archery, Sheehan added, is a significant contributor to that increase because of how popular it has become.
"It has really taken off," he said.
The skill has become romanticized through movies such as "The Hunger Games," "Avatar" and Disney's "Brave."
The real ignition of archery interest, however, comes from a program called National Archery in the Schools, which, in Utah, has 10,000 student participants, Sheehan said.
A youth archery competition featured at the annual Western Hunting and Conservation drew 135 participants a couple of years ago, he said. At the event earlier this month in Salt Lake City, Sheehan said there were close to 1,000 boys and girls involved.
The Pittman-Robertson Fund was established in 1937, born in the Dust Bowl era out of concerns to protect and restore wildlife populations — from wild turkey to deer, elk and bighorn sheep.
The nation's first habitat restoration project made possible with the money happened in Utah with the creation of the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area.
Over the years, some of the money has been used to acquire about 60,000 acres that make up the Tabby Mountain Wildlife Management Area, which boasts one of the most popular, sizable deer herds in Utah.
This infusion of millions more — last year the division received $9.4 million — will help other wildlife conservation projects in the state, but Sheehan said the division is also going to help establish public shooting ranges, which don't exist in many areas.
"I am a firm believer that if we are going to have these weapons, we need safe places to shoot them, so that is what we are trying to do," he said.
The division is working with Weber County officials and will give them a $400,000 grant to build an outdoor shooting and archery range for the public.
"There are not good options for public shooting in Weber County," said Commissioner Kerry Gibson. "These sports have fast-growing support and have enjoyed extreme popularity and growth over the years. Unfortunately, with no organized activities in the area, we have people shooting in areas that do not make sense."
The commission and division have identified a number of possible places that a shooting range could be located but are in the preliminary stages.
Sheehan said a similar search is ongoing in Utah County for a public shooting range, but finding land has been difficult.
Such ranges would not only provide shooting enthusiasts with a safe place to enjoy their sport, but Sheehan said they would also curtail risks to the public in terms of helping to prevent inadvertent wildfires.
"It becomes a life safety issue at times," he said.
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