Thousands of gun owners flocked to the National Rifle Association convention in Phoenix this past weekend, with participants and keynote speakers rallying around their core interests of concealed handguns, background checks, and President Obama's gun policy. One topic that I suspect didn't make the agenda: The NRA's continued defense of poaching.
I wrote last year that the NRA was the main obstacle in Congress to the passage of the Bear Protection Act, an anti-poaching policy which seeks to stop the illegal killing of bears for the commercial trade in their bile and gall bladders on the black market for use in traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs. Then the gun group set its sights on allowing people to carry loaded weapons in national parks, rolling back a Reagan-era rule that was enacted as a way to combat poaching in these few remaining safe havens for wildlife.
Now, the NRA has barrels ablaze over a Pennsylvania bill that would put teeth in the state's weak anti-poaching law and help game wardens crack down on the illegal killing of wildlife. Specifically, H.B. 97, introduced by longtime hunting advocate and NRA member Rep. Edward Staback (D-Lackawanna and Wayne counties), makes it a felony to assault an officer enforcing the wildlife code; increases the penalties for poaching, which are among the weakest in the nation; allows jail time for chronic or serial poachers; and requires the forfeiture of a hunting license for poaching violations.
When asked whether to take the side of law enforcement or criminals, the NRA chose the latter. The group's Pennsylvania lobbyist, John Hohenwarter, apparently told a group of lawmakers and Pennsylvania Game Commission staff that there should be "an acceptable level of illegal activity." The NRA's argument is that responsible hunters just can't restrain themselves from shooting animals out of season or going over their bag limits, as if they were accidentally driving 70 miles per hour on a stretch of highway where the speed limit is 65.
Hunters and outdoor columnists like Tom Venesky of the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader rightly shot holes in this logic, making the point that poachers need to be punished for their crimes -- even if it means losing their gun rights -- rather than get away with a slap on the wrist. Venesky asked, "Does the NRA really believe we should protect the gun rights of a convicted poacher at the expense of our wildlife? I hope not."
The bill's author, Rep. Staback, accused the NRA of making several misleading statements in its scorched-earth campaign to derail the anti-poaching legislation. And he rejected the NRA's argument that hunters should tolerate a small amount of poaching: "If passed into law, the penalties in H.B. 97 will leave no doubt to all of those who would pursue poaching, on a large and small scale, that their actions are viewed as serious crimes by the outdoor community and by legitimate hunters."
It's bad enough that the NRA defends bear baiting, pigeon shoots, and other practices that rank-and-file hunters consider inhumane and unsporting -- but poaching is a crime. We wouldn't tolerate a small amount of dogfighting or cockfighting, and we shouldn't let the NRA bully lawmakers into giving poachers a free pass. If you live in Pennsylvania, tell your state legislators to support H.B. 97, and send a message that the state is no longer a safe haven for poachers.