FORT WORTH (Reuters) - The life-sized stuffed animals at the massive Cabela’s store in Fort Worth can give the impression of being in a natural history museum.
But the elephant, bear, mule deer and other creatures on display are all trophies that were shot in the wild by the hunters who come to America’s largest outdoor retailer to buy their guns.
“I already have a rifle but I‘m thinking of getting a .308,” said Darry Ayers, a strapping 19-year-old business student and deer hunter, as he peered at the long rows of rifles and shotguns on display.
The percentage of Americans who hunt is slowly declining but it remains popular and helps explain a national love affair with guns -- an affair that many foreigners find puzzling and critics have linked to high rates of violent crime and shooting sprees.
To hunters and gun owners, the right to bear arms is a cherished freedom tied to the American identity and is one reason the candidates in the U.S. presidential election are not talking about gun control.
“Guns and hunting are deeply associated historically in America,” said William Vizzard, an expert on gun control and related issues who chairs the criminal justice department at the University of California Sacramento.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2007 there were about 14.5 million paid licensed hunters in America or about five percent of the population. They bought over 35 million tags, permits and licenses, spending more than $723 million.
There are no exact figures but the industry is a multibillion-dollar one. Cabela’s Inc, a listed company that focuses on hunting, fishing and related activities, saw its 2007 revenue grow 13.9 percent over 2006 to a record $2.35 billion.
The hunting culture is most firmly rooted in rural areas, the U.S. heartland and evangelical Christian circles, where some see it as a bonding experience for fathers and sons that helps keep families together.
“When I was growing up Dad-and-son time was often expressed in hunting. It also has a lot to do with the culture of evangelicalism, which is strong in the heartland and rural areas,” said Gary Ledbetter, the spokesman for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
Prominent religious conservatives who avidly hunt include President George W. Bush and James Dobson, founder of the conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family.
A U.S. survey of licensed hunters and anglers in 2006, commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation, found half of those polled identified themselves as evangelical Christians.
Until the 1960s, the majority of U.S. gun sales were for the rifles and shotguns typically used during the hunt, underscoring the historic link between guns and hunting. That has reversed in the intervening years.
“Today gun stores have a huge inventory of hand guns. The market now is about two-thirds for handguns and assault rifles and one-third for sporting purposes,” Vizzard said. There was some overlap between the two but the trend was clear, he said.
In Cabela‘s, which has a large assortment of handguns in display cases, the emphasis is still on hunting, said sales clerk Tom Walker, standing beneath a long row of stuffed dear heads.
“My general observation would be that about 60 percent of the clients are interested in hunting,” he said.
Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Eddie Evans