The National Rifle Association has a new message for its oldest constituency: it’s time to go to war.
The gun group is rolling out a new ad campaign geared toward hunters, a segment of firearm owners whose concerns have been eclipsed as the NRA transformed into a political powerhouse and threw its weight behind fights over self-defense and access to weapons. To sway its audience, the NRA is deploying its favorite tactic. It is trying to scare them.
“To save hunting, you must understand the terms of the battle,” a landing page for the campaign reads. “Because the animal rights extremists fighting to destroy hunting have an even more destructive goal: the systematic diminishment of humanity itself.”
The ad campaign consists of 10 videos paired with essays, featuring appearances and bylines by notable hunters and outdoorsmen like David Draper, a well-known writer for Field & Stream magazine. Put together, the package paints a picture of a world where hunting is under threat by animal rights activists.
These activists want to “suppress your most natural connection to the earth,” the narrator in one video states, and “ignore that death is life’s unwavering partner.” At the end of each video, the voiceover implores listeners to “trust the hunter in your blood.”
The NRA was founded in 1871 as an organization promoting shooting sports and marksmanship. Over the years, hunters, many of whom own and use firearms, grew to be a core segment of its membership. But since the “Cincinnati Revolt” of 1977, during a board meeting in the Ohio city, the group has radicalized, morphing into a lobbying juggernaut that heavily influences federal and state gun policy. The group did not give up on hunters: it publishes a hunting magazine, and has continued to support programing geared towards outdoorsmen. But this is the first time it has launched a national, us-vs.-them identity campaign that employs the same dark, bombastic rhetoric as its political messaging.
Some hunters say they’re not comfortable with the tone.
“In my experience, hunting has been a pretty apolitical activity,” said David Fellerath, a longtime hunter and freelance writer in North Carolina. “I’ve never experienced an organized anti-hunting campaign or had any animus directed at me to make me ashamed of hunting. I’d hate to get dragged into a culture war.”
The NRA’s shift in messaging comes just months after it reorganized its hunting division. In October, the group fired Kyle Weaver as head of outreach for hunting, outdoors, and shooting sports. Weaver had been with the NRA for 21 years, and stressed in interviews that the organization was a home for sportsmen, not just gun owners.
“It’s my goal to make sure that everyone knows we also have something for everyone, even outside the political arena,” he wrote in 2015.
The NRA handed off Weaver’s hunting outreach duties to Josh Powell, now the national spokesman for NRA Hunting, who is not shy about being political.
“We are in the middle of a war,” he says in one of the campaign’s videos, before comparing tangling with organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society to “dealing with Al Qaeda.”
It’s true that PETA in particular is hostile to hunting, calling the activity a “cruel, needless killing spree.” The Humane Society advocates for restrictions on certain hunting practices, including the use of lead ammunition and hunts of captive animals.
The embattled scenario sketched by Powell and the NRA hunting campaign is belied by hunters’ recent political victories, however. In March, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke rescinded an Obama administration rule banning the use of lead ammunition on federal wildlife reserves, and directed federal agencies to identify new areas that could be opened up to hunting and fishing. Zinke also spoke at the NRA convention in Atlanta, where he said “no one loves public lands more than I,” and promised to increase hunters’ access to federal lands even further. In early April, the NRA scored a victory over animal rights groups in particular when President Trump signed a bill that lifted restrictions on hunting Alaskan predators like bears and wolves on national wildlife preserves, allowing hunters to kill hibernating animals or those in dens with their cubs.
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Notably, the NRA campaign does not advocate for any specific policy changes. Instead, it just asks for donations. It doesn’t mention any of the hunting-related bills the NRA has lobbied Congress about this year, like the law that lets hunters in Alaska shoot hibernating bears, or the Hunter and Farmer Protection Act, which would change laws dictating how hunters may bait migratory birds.
As the NRA grew more political in the 21st century, the group’s relationship with hunters often strained. Many NRA-endorsed Republicans are committed to selling public lands or opening those areas to use by mining or fossil fuel companies, which would cut off access to or despoil hunting grounds.
“The NRA does not have credibility with hunters to the degree some think,” said Randy Newberg, a professional hunter and TV host, after reviewing the NRA’s new ad campaign. “To those of us with an eye on the future of wildlife, clean air, clean water, and productive lands, this message isn’t going to change our direction. It will be taken for what it is, an effort by the NRA to increase their penetration among hunters.”
However, Newberg added, the tactic of playing to fears of outsiders and framing political fights as existential crises “works very well for [the NRA] in other arenas, so it only makes sense to do the same when trying to gain more appeal among hunters.”