In mid-May, following the NRA’s 138th Annual Meetings and Exhibits in Phoenix, Ariz., Ronald Schmeits was elected the 60th president of the NRA by the organization’s Board of Directors. Schmeits, who serves as president, chief executive officer, and director of International Bank in Raton, N.M., has been an NRA Life Member for more than 20 years and a Benefactor Member since 2005. He is also a lifelong hunter and serves as chairman of the NRA Whittington Center in Raton. We sat down with the new NRA president to talk about his hunting career and his top hunting priorities.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your personal hunting background?
RS: I was born and raised on a ranch in northeast Nebraska, and we always had guns in the house. I remember my first gun was a BB gun. After that I graduated to an old .22 that would only take shorts. That allowed me to do a little rabbit hunting and squirrel hunting. As time went along, my dad had a 12 gauge and a .410. The 12 gauge was a Winchester pump and the .410 was a bolt single shot. I got to do a little pheasant hunting and a little quail hunting, and then also a little waterfowling, although we had very few ducks in Nebraska at that point.
After college I went to work in banking in Minnesota. That’s where I bought what I considered my first real shotgun, a Charles Daly over-under, and I still use that gun today. I’ve probably had it for 45 years, and it’s still one of my favorite guns. It’s taken an awful lot of game. In Minnesota I did a lot of upland game hunting, quail and pheasants. Then I proceeded to do more wingshooting for ducks and geese. I spent a lot of time in northern Minnesota hunting ducks and then a lot of time in Canada in the Winnipeg area hunting geese and ducks. So you kind of migrate with what’s available in the area. Today, pheasant and quail hunting are still probably my favorite outdoor activities.
I enjoyed the hunting then, although it’s different than what I do today. Twenty-five years ago I moved to New Mexico, where you hunt antelope, mule deer, elk, bear and lions, and I usually get some of those hunts in every year. I have a great friend who is a professional guide, and when he doesn’t have a client, we’ll spend time out hunting for whatever species happens to be in season at the time. Lots of times we’re not successful, but we have a great time.
Q: Are there any hunts you’ve been on that stand out as particularly memorable?
RS: It was a real snowy day and we were out tracking mountain lions, and for some reason I had gotten off of my horse. The friend with me said something like, ‘Why don’t you take your binoculars and walk up to that next ridge and glass? I’ll wait here, and if you see something, I’ll come around to the other side and pick you up.’ I can remember getting almost to the top of the ridge—and here again you should always carry your gun with you—and there was this pine tree, and as I walked under it I heard this hiss. I looked up and not more than four feet above me was this magnificent male mountain lion. I just happened to walk under him. I can remember the muscles in his body and his legs just twisting and quivering. He was hissing at me and I looked up at him wondering why I hadn’t brought my gun with me. I sure didn’t need binoculars to see him. So I took a couple steps back, and at that point he jumped out of the tree and took off down the other side of the hill. We never did see him again.
But I think almost every hunt you go on has some memorable experience that you thoroughly enjoy. I remember goose hunting in Ontario and we were trying to get to our pits. We were carrying our guns, they weren’t loaded, and we walked up to this little ridge and over the ridge there was a pond there, it was right on top of us. It was full of mallards, and they all got up and we just watched them fly away. We were not anticipating them because we hadn’t seen any mallards in the area for three or four days, and we just didn’t expect them to be there. But it was a beautiful scene. So it’s the unexpected that I think makes for a memorable day. Whether you succeed in harvesting something, that doesn’t make any difference.
Q: Are there any specific goals you hope to accomplish during your term as NRA president?
RS: As president, hunting and the Second Amendment are extremely important to me. Freedom is important to me also, and I think the Second Amendment guarantees that freedom. We need to have the freedom to hunt. We need to have the freedom to exercise those rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I want to make sure that we still have the ability to exercise those rights, and I think in doing that we need broad support from a lot of individuals, whether they believe in freedom, or firearms ownership, or hunting. We’ve got 4 million NRA members, 12.5 million hunters, and 80 million gun owners. We need to get as many of those on the bandwagon as we possibly can. I’ve got friends of mine that don’t own guns, but they still believe in freedom. They feel as strong towards the Second Amendment as I do. I think it’s about organizing those types of individuals when the elections come up so that we have a strong grassroots organization through ILA and our clubs and associations. I think that’s the way that we elect individuals who believe in freedom just like we do.
Q: What do you see as the most important battles facing hunters today? (Too few places to hunt? Too few ranges? The influence of anti-hunting groups?)
RS: I think there are lots of places to hunt out there; sometimes it’s a problem of getting access to them. Whether it’s federal land or private land, we’ve got to come up with ways to make sure we guarantee better hunter access.
I think the anti-hunting groups are always going to have someone out there pounding on our door because they think we shouldn’t be hunting. Hunters are concerned about nature and the longevity of the animals that they hunt. If animals aren’t properly harvested, they catch diseases and nature takes care of them. If we can control those animal numbers, then they won’t get diseases. That’s one of the things that most of the game departments do—they do surveys, they set license numbers. And the reason for that is to maintain a good quality herd of animals out there—not too many and not too few. And we need to continue to do that.
One of the things that concerns me most are the odd little laws that are passed that restrict hunters. Maybe the number of bullets that you can carry in your pocket. Or California and their lead ban in the condor area. It’s things like this that happen that affect hunting substantially. It’s these little laws that pick away at the rights and freedoms of hunters that we have to watch. You can look at example after example of odd little things that they put into place that hunters can be prosecuted for that have nothing to do with game management. They’re nuisance laws put out there to restrict hunters, and we need to watch those nuisance laws to make sure they are not passed as readily as they have been in the past.
Q: As the nation’s largest pro-hunting group, what role do you see NRA playing in the continued fight for hunters’ rights?
RS: We are the largest pro-hunting group in the world, and we’re the largest civil rights group in the world. I think those two kind of go together. NRA-ILA needs to continue to fight for hunters’ rights, and we need to make sure these nuisance-type laws are not passed, whether they are on a state or federal basis. I think a lot of it is how the bureaucracy interprets the laws that are passed. Sometimes the interpretation is not the same as the enforcement. We have to watch the departments to make sure that they don’t come up with odd, miscellaneous restrictions that were not meant in the law itself. We have to work very closely with our legislatures to make sure that we continue to have that right to hunt.
Q: What message would you like to convey to hunters who aren’t members of NRA, or who perhaps aren’t active in the political arena?
RS: There’s a lot of room for more hunters to join NRA. A lot of times hunters think, ‘Well, the legislation doesn’t affect me.’ But legislation really does, and you can’t rely on someone else to do all of the work for you. If you want to continue to enjoy the firearms that you have and have the ability to buy ammunition, then you’re going to have to get involved. Involvement, when you look at the legislative process, is numbers. It’s numbers to elect those people that represent you. We need to elect the proper people that feel for freedom the same way we do, and who have the same passion for the Second Amendment. And not only do we have to elect them, but when particular issues come up, we need to get on the phone or write a letter. The phone calls need to be short and crisp. The letters need to be a single issue. The more people that we have talking to our legislators, the better chance we have of passing bills that are appropriate and that benefit the hunters instead of restricting them. It’s really that involvement.
If you’re involved in a hunting club, you need to promote the NRA and have all of the members of that club do the same. If you have next door neighbors that feel for freedom like we do—they don’t have to be hunters or shooters—then get them on board. If every member would get another member, then we’d have 8 million. And if 8 million would do that, we’d get to 16 million. Sometimes I wonder why all hunters are not members, or why all 80 million gun owners aren’t members, because they have a passion. To protect their passion they need to be a part of the NRA. Without them being a part, it makes it more difficult to protect their rights.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your background within NRA and how you came to be involved with the organization?
RS: As a young person, I just accepted the rights that we had. Shooting was just always something you did when I was growing up. But after school I started seeing what the government was trying to do, and I became involved in the NRA and became a Life Member to support the cause. When I moved to New Mexico, I became very involved in the Whittington Center. I was fortunate enough to be asked to serve on the Board, which I did. I think through serving on that Board and seeing what’s happening throughout the world, you see what great opportunities we have at the Whittington Center, and I became extremely involved with the effort to support those rights.
About 15 years ago, I began serving on the NRA Finance Committee as a non-director. After a few years I was asked to run for the Board. My involvement continued to revolve around Finance and other committees, such as Publications and Membership. Five years ago I was asked to consider running for an office. This happened to be on Christmas morning they called me. [My wife] Ann was very supportive of it, and she’s been very supportive ever since. So I agreed to do it, and it’s been a fantastic journey being an officer of this association.
Q: As a strong advocate of youth hunting, how valuable are programs such as NRA’s Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC) in recruiting and retaining the next generation of hunters?
RS: I think the value of the YHEC program is to acquaint young people with the shooting programs that are available out there. YHEC is the best all-around hunting program there is. We work with 4-H groups and the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts of America, and they have their major programs, and many of their programs include some sort of shooting discipline. But the YHEC program is the cream of the crop. This summer we had hundreds of young individuals out at the Whittington Center—the national YHEC is held there every two years. YHEC acquaints young hunters with all of the shooting disciplines. It also acquaints them with wildlife identification and compass reading. It gives them a real look at what all of us enjoy doing. Most of the time when these young people are exposed to the shooting sports, it changes their lives.
A friend of mine does a lot of bowling, and that got me thinking about the similarities between bowling and shooting. When you bowl you’re competing against a group, but really you’re competing against yourself. I look at shooting the same way. I’m not a competitive shooter, but when I go out there I compete against myself. The reason is I’m trying to improve my skills, so that when I go out in the field to hunt I’m a better hunter. I think that’s what YHEC does. It gives these young individuals an exposure to all types of outdoor recreational activities. When they’re exposed to hunting and nature, they see what they would not be able to enjoy if their rights were taken away from them.
Q: As you mentioned, this year’s YHEC was held at the NRA Whittington Center, which you serve as chairman, and is near your home in Raton, N.M. What are some of the opportunities that hunters and their families can take advantage of at the Whittington Center?
RS: The Whittington Center is 33,000 acres, and only 20 percent of that is what I would consider developed. There are 18 ranges out there, so that means any discipline that you want to shoot is there, whether it’s a short-range pistol on up to a 1,000-yard range. There’s also anything in between and all of the shotgun disciplines.
I think having the ability to shoot at any of the ranges out there, at any time, is critical. Anybody can come out and use those ranges, whether you’re a member or not. If you’re a member of the Whittington Center Shooting Club, you get a reduced rate. If you’re not a member, you’re going to pay a little bit more, so you’re really better off becoming a member. It offers an opportunity to spend a weekend or a week out there with the family, whether you want to stay in a cabin or if you want to go camping. There are numerous camp sites. And then the backcountry offers great opportunities for hiking and just enjoying nature. You can be on a range out there shooting and all of a sudden you’ll have to stop because either a flock of turkeys is walking in front of you, or you’ve got several deer or bears that may come up and watch you shoot. There’s nowhere else that you can have that type of experience.
Q: What do you see as the key one or two things that we need to do as a hunting community to ensure that hunting remains strong for future generations?
RS: Everybody needs to get involved in the political process. Your involvement can help pro-gun candidates get elected, whether it’s city council, mayor, state legislature, or federal legislature. Without the proper representation in those governing bodies, we have a greater chance of losing our rights. So it’s getting involved politically. You can spend personal time or you can donate dollars to make that happen, but those are the things we need to do because without that representation, things can change very quickly. That’s really where it has to start.