In a spat that could have implications for the presidential campaign, the National Rifle Association has angered a group of opinion makers among America's 50 million hunters and anglers.
The president of the National Rifle Association warned a convention of outdoor writers last month that it should not be seduced by environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, which promise to protect hunting habitat but actually are scheming to ban guns.
"It's pretty hard to hunt without guns," Kayne B. Robinson, president of the NRA, told the Outdoor Writers Association of America at its annual meeting in Spokane, Wash.
At the convention, the Sierra Club had offered to join forces with hunting groups to protect wildlife habitat, a proposal that generated considerable support. But Robinson said the NRA, which has 4 million members, half of whom are hunters, would never cooperate with the Sierra Club, which he suggested was trying to "hoodwink hunters into voting for gun ban candidates."
Robinson's remarks have prompted an unprecedented rebuke from the Outdoor Writers, a 77-year-old group of newspaper, magazine, radio and TV commentators who for decades have had a somewhat fawning relationship with the NRA. Many are longtime NRA members and contributors to its publications.
The writers' board of directors voted 11 to 4 to send Robinson a letter "expressing our disappointment in your harsh criticism of fellow OWAA supporting member Sierra Club." The June 30 letter described his comments as "inappropriate."
Since the late June convention, several outdoor columnists, writing in their own newspapers, have lambasted Robinson's speech. They also have said his accusation that environmental groups have a stealth plan to ban hunting guns was alarmist and false.
"The National Rifle Association locked, loaded and fired its best shot at the Sierra Club . . . only to have the blast explode in its face," wrote Tom Stienstra in the San Francisco Chronicle.
"The NRA continues to blindly advocate 'Vote your gun.' So narrow. So sad," wrote Rich Landers, outdoors editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Landers observed that Robinson's "bull-headed polarizing rhetoric" occasioned "a good deal of eye-rolling" at the convention.
Asked to comment on the criticism, Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA, said that Robinson "provided reasonable commentary in an honest, factual and civil manner. The glaring anomaly here is individuals with journalism backgrounds wanting to choke off the oxygen of free speech."
Also fueling the anger in Spokane -- and injecting presidential politics into the argument -- was Robinson's assertion that hunters are being denied access to 26 million acres because of a Clinton-era policy that limits road construction on federal land.
The Bush administration, which has the backing of the NRA in the Nov. 2 election, has moved to limit the roadless rule in national forests. Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), President Bush's Democratic challenger, has said he would reinstate all roadless areas.
The Bush and Kerry campaigns are courting hunters and anglers, whose numbers are large in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania and who tend to turn out to vote. In the 2000 election, the "hook and bullet" vote went mostly to George W. Bush and gun rights were a decisive factor, according to several major hunting and conservation groups. But according to these same organizations, resource extraction efforts by the Bush administration on prime hunting and fishing habitat have upset many outdoorsmen.
In Spokane, many of the outdoor writers said they disputed Robinson's statement that roadless areas are closed to hunters. In fact, roadless areas are open to hunting and fishing, if sportsmen are willing to get out of their cars and ply these areas on foot or horseback.
The best hunting and fishing in Idaho and Oregon -- as measured by the size and number of big game taken and fish caught -- occur in roadless areas, according to two new studies by Trout Unlimited, a conservation group. The studies were presented at the convention.
"I was embarrassed and appalled by what Robinson had to say," said Pat Wray, a member of the Outdoor Writers board of directors. Wray is author of "The Chukar Hunter's Companion" and is a 20-year member of the NRA.
Wray, who drafted the letter of complaint to Robinson, said the NRA struggles with a "basic conundrum" that limits its willingness to protect wildlife habitat.
"Its primary purpose in life is protecting Americans' right to keep and bear arms, but they are trying to play that game in a hunter's realm," Wray said. "The NRA will make a push on behalf of politicians who are strong supporters of gun rights, but very often these are the same people who are the least supportive of efforts to protect hunting habitat from roads, logging and mining."
Wray said there are "a great many hunters out there like me. I am a registered Republican. I am a longtime member of the NRA. But George Bush's administration scares me to death, when it comes to the environment."
Arulanandam said the NRA has not heard complaints from members about the Bush administration's environmental policies. He added that the NRA "has contributed more to preserve hunting lands than any organization in this country."
The NRA wants to make access by car to hunting areas a priority, Arulanandam said. He added that Robinson's major complaint about roadless areas is that they limit "mainstream hunter access to valuable hunting land.
"You are talking about people having to hire hunting guides, which is a financial burden, or you are talking about trekking," Arulanandam said. "It would take exceptionally long to hunt, and what about disabled hunters?"
The NRA's insistence on drive-close hunting has, itself, generated considerable heat among outdoor writers. An editorial last month in the Lewiston, Idaho, Tribune said that "most of the legions of people insisting on a driveway right" to hunt "simply have more invested in their beer bellies than their boots."