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In early February, two months into a national debate over gun violence after the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, representatives of the firearms industry were wining and dining lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

The occasion was for the incoming leadership of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, which counts more than 250 members in the House and Senate. Hosting the gathering was a little-known but well-connected organization, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation.

Despite its low profile, the foundation has close ties to members of Congress, allowing its donors, who give as much as $100,000 a year, to mix with lawmakers at shooting contests, banquets and wine tastings. The food and drink at last month’s gathering were paid for, in part, by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the trade group for the gun industry.

Over the past year, sportsmen’s caucus members have mingled at a “Wine, Wheels and Wildlife” fundraiser at a North Carolina vineyardand a “Stars and Stripes Shootout” in Tampa, Fla., where the top shooting awards went to a Republican congressman and a lobbyist for the NRA. Such events provide the firearms industry and other foundation donors with a tax-deductible means of lobbying the elected officials who shape policies important to their businesses.

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A private charity not affiliated with the government, the foundation carries the cachet of its relationship with the sportsmen’s caucus in Congress, which it provides with research on policies affecting hunting and fishing. But while ostensibly focused on those outdoor pursuits, it also presses issues important mainly to the gun industry, one of its largest contributors.

The foundation opposes restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines, a ban on military-style AR-15 rifles and the imprinting of bullets with traceable serial numbers to help solve crimes. All of those proposals have surfaced in the current legislative debate, which is expected to continue Thursday when a Senate Judiciary Committee considers a bill to curb illegal gun trafficking.

The foundation says its positions fit with its mission “to work with Congress, governors and state legislatures to protect and advance hunting, recreational angling, and shooting and trapping.”

“There is significant overlap between access to firearms and the ability to participate in hunting and recreational shooting activities,” it said in a statement.

Others see the linkage as part of a calculated effort by the firearms industry to advance policies that have little to do with outdoor sports. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a New Jersey Democrat who as a co-chairman of the law-enforcement caucus has butted heads with the sportsmen’s caucus on gun issues, said pro-gun groups had stoked fear in Congress by portraying any limits on firearms as a threat to legitimate pastimes like hunting.

“They see this as if they give in on any one item, it will put them on a slippery slope to coming into your home and taking your guns away,” Pascrell said. “They’re creating hysteria.”

Lawmakers have long formed caucuses on subjects as varied as drug addiction and capital-gains taxes. Special interests often press their cases with caucus members, sometimes through receptions, trips and fundraisers. But most caucuses do not have foundations set up specifically for that purpose.

Established in 1989 as the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus Foundation — the word “caucus” was dropped in 1994 — the foundation is a nonprofit charity under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, meaning it can accept unlimited, tax-deductible donations.

Many of its programs focus on wildlife conservation, on open space and on hunting, including an annual report on its economic benefits. It has held briefings or issued policy statements on opening public lands and waterways for hunting and fishing, easing limits on imports of skins and other trophies from polar-bear hunting and opposing regulation of the lead content in fishing-line sinkers. But it also backs gun-industry positions whose relevance to its historical focus on hunting and fishing is indirect at best.

Foundation President Jeff Crane declined to be interviewed. But in written responses to questions, the foundation said that “limiting the purchase of firearms and ammunition has a direct impact on state-based professional fish and wildlife management” because it would mean less revenue from federal excise taxes, which finance those programs.

Many hunters and target shooters also use rifles that gun-control advocates would classify, wrongly, as assault weapons, it said.

The foundation’s board has included top executives of Freedom Group, the largest U.S. maker of firearms, and ATK, the country’s biggest producer of ammunition. In 2010, the foundation disclosed that its most generous donor in its history was the gun industry’s trade association. (It said last week that another donor, which it would not identify, has since taken top honors.)

Contributions ballooned from $434,000 in 2001 to more than $2 million in 2011, with its top-tier donors including firearms-makers and retailers like Remington, Winchester and Wal-Mart. Other high-level donors include the NRA; outdoor groups like Safari Club International; and ExxonMobil, Amgen and Altria.

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