OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: AGFC establishes new shooting sports division

To leverage the popularity of its youth shooting sports program, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission announced Thursday the creation of its new Shooting Sports Division.

This development elevates shooting sports from a program to a full-blown department within the agency, said Game and Fish Commission director Austin Booth. As an independent division, shooting sports will have its own staff and its own strategic plan, Booth said.

Grant Tomlin, the shooting sports division's first chief, articulated that plan during the commission's monthly meeting Thursday in Little Rock. Condensed, the division's strategic goals are to make competition level shooting sports facilities available throughout the state, to make competitive shooting opportunities available to all Arkansans, especially for minorities.

Nationally, shooting generates $81 billion in total economic impact, which funnels $1.5 billion into the Federal Aid for Wildlife Restoration Fund created by the Pittman-Robertson Act, Tomlin said. Arkansas receives $2.75 million in Pittman-Robertson grants, which come from a federal excise tax on firearms, ammunition, shooting optics and many other hunting and shooting related products.

"The link between recreational shooting and hunters is at least as old as Pittman-Robertson," Booth said. "They are the most impactful conservationists in the country. Hunters and recreational shooters noticed a very long time ago that to conserve the thing they enjoy most is to make sure it's around for the next generation."

University of the Ozarks, whose shooting program has won seven team and individual national shooting championships, intends to create a world-class shooting facility on its campus with the help of a $2 million grant from the Game and Fish Commission. This will enhance shooting opportunities for the entire Arkansas River Valley.

The University of the Ozarks facility will house ranges for skeet, trap, Olympic bunker trap, rifle, pistol and archery.

"There is nowhere in the state where college shooters can compete at an Olympic level," said Richard Dunsworth, president of University of the Ozarks.

Dunsworth said that University of the Ozarks, located in Clarksville, already fielded highly successful shooting teams when he became the university's president 10 years ago. Teams had to travel long distances to practice.

"We had teams winning nationals without having facilities to practice at in Arkansas," Dunsworth said. "That made us wonder what might happen if they had the facilities to work with."

The facility will be only about 90 seconds away from I-40, the second most widely traveled interstate freeway in the nation, Dunsworth said. He hinted that prominent "branding" on I-40 might be part of the outreach strategy.

Fiocchi Ammunition, which in April announced it would build a plant in Little Rock to make ammunition primers, will figure prominently in the commission's enhanced emphasis on shooting sports.

Stan Jones, the Game and Fish Commission's chairman, praised University of the Ozarks and Fiocchi for their enthusiastic participation, saying that shooting sports is a great cultural fit for Arkansas.

"It's in our DNA," Jones said. "It's natural for us to shoot a gun and to harvest something. Fiocchi shells could not be in a better place. Our DNA runs deep, and you will have success with what you're doing here."

Jones reflected on his youth, when he said he hunted for food with a .410 shotgun. Jones said he never had more than eight shotgun shells at a time, and if he pulled the trigger, he had better have a squirrel or a quail to show for it.

Jones asked State Senator Gary Stubblefield if his experiences were similar. Stubblefield said that he used to shoot quail with a "22." Most likely, his reference was to a .22-caliber rifle, which is illegal. Shooting quail with a rifle suggests having shot them on the ground, which is sacrilegious to bird hunters. Many people in the auditorium voiced disapproval.

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