It marked the greatest celebration of American freedom as the NRA welcomed President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and a record 87,000-plus all-American gun owners, hunters and shooters to its 147th NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits in Dallas, May 4-6. But the kick-off event on the eve of May 3 was all about celebrating hunting as the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum (HLF) gathered in the city’s historic Belo Mansion for the 4th Annual NRA HLF Dinner. The focus: to tout our rich hunting heritage and unite to preserve it.
The program began with a heartfelt video message from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who promoted America’s new era of conservation stewardship under the Trump administration. He thanked the NRA for “leading the charge for hunting and shooting in the United States as we encourage more Americans to enjoy our public lands.”
You could feel the positive momentum in the room as NRA HLF co-chairs and HLF Presidents’ Founders Club (PFC) members—NRA Board member and NRA Women’s Leadership ForumExecutive Committee member Melanie Pepper and NRA First Vice President and race car hall-of-famer Richard Childress—addressed the crowd. Pepper said, “My love of hunting is deep in my DNA and in my NRA” and noted the group’s commitment to NRA values. Childress set the stage for NRA President Pete Brownell to share the NRA HLF’s accomplishments over the past year, adding, “The HLF is critical to hunting’s future. It is committed to paving the way and telling the story that hunting and conservation are great for this country.”
With hunters and hunting increasingly under attack by animal rights extremists, Brownell said the NRA HLF is the catalyst in saving hunting’s future. “When you must defend what’s right, don’t lose,” he said. “Our freedom is at stake.” He explained how most of the general public does not understand the difference between “animal rights” and “animal welfare.” This is what groups like the Humane Society of the United States and PETA count on as they blur the definitions in their fundraising campaigns and push litigation seeking legal personhood for animals. In 2001, nine schools offered animal rights law courses, but today there are more than 200. And now Bob Barker, former host of “The Price is Right,” has created the Bob Barker Trust. He is donating $1 million each to a number of top law schools to fund animal rights programs and train a new generation of lawyers, judges and legislators in animal rights extremism.
To address this, Brownell said, “We have developed an action plan for teaching the principles of North American Model of Wildlife Conservation to law students,” he said. The NRA also is conducting scholarly, legal research highlighting the benefits of hunting to counter the claims presented by the other side. In addition, the NRA has conducted HLF-funded research to gather benchmark data gauging public perception toward hunters and hunting. The collective hunting community can use the data to craft messaging that resonates with the American public and reclaim a positive narrative about hunters and hunting.
Of course, the challenge is getting the word out to communicate effectively with the American public. The collective hunting community is covered there, too, as Brownell noted the NRA has established an NRA HLF social media network. The NRA is sharing content from its NRA HLF website, NRAHLF.org, through an information exchange reaching 25 million-plus hunters, which increases our reach exponentially. While many NRAHLF.org articles address hunting issues on the state, national and international levels, others explain: how poaching is not hunting; how legal, regulated hunting benefits wildlife; and how hunters are ethical, compassionate mainstream Americans whose dollars aid game and non-game species alike.
Saving the most obvious NRA tool for last, Brownell acknowledged the NRA war horse: the NRA Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA). “ILA’s list of hunting and conservation accomplishments is massive, and your gifts strengthen NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris Cox’s team,” Brownell said, noting ILA’s track record of stability, longevity and success on the state, federal and international levels. “We have the tools to make a bigger impact but it will take financial resources. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time to help the next generation is now.” As numerous people in the room raised their hands to pledge significant donations, Brownell noted how the pledge ensures liberties “for all,” adding, “Let’s pledge for ALWAYS. Having the courage to stand for what you believe is courtesy of HLF patriots. You personify our passion and make the HLF what it is today.”
Highlights from the evening included remarks from guest speaker and NRA Life member Kendall Jones, the youngest person to have taken Africa’s Big Five and Dangerous Seven. She is also the Texas Tech cheerleader, who, in 2014 at age 19, became the center of a social media firestorm after posting photos with her African game animals on Facebook. She spoke of how animal rights extremists attacked her family and friends. She relived how 175,000 of them signed a petition to ban her from Africa and kick her out of Texas Tech University and off its cheerleading team. “I was the only athlete on the field with a personal body guard,” she said. “If I was old enough to hunt, I was old enough to be hunted down. It’s unimaginable. All I did was go hunting.” Inspiring everyone in the room, she said, “The only way to beat us is to divide us. What’s your plan for hunting? What’s our plan for hunting?” Her answer: Invest in education, social media outlets and in getting to know our youth because “the world has changed, and the liberals are not holding back.”
The program included an award presentation to Melanie Pepper recognizing her three years of distinguished service as co-chair as she prepares to hand the baton to fellow HLF PFC member Ward “Trig” French. French said, “Many of us are hunters but aren’t accounted for, they’re members of other organizations but not the NRA.” Speaking as a father of three daughters, he wants to address that so the next generation has our same opportunities.
Clearly, harnessing the power of the collective hunting community is how we save hunting’s future—and it all starts with the NRA HLF. Through HLF members’ philanthropy and leadership, no organization does more to support hunters than the NRA. As an avid hunter and NRA Endowment Life member, I was honored to stand with this group in protecting hunting as a most precious gift. Future generations’ ability to experience and appreciate the natural world depends on our collective ongoing support.