The National Rifle Association’s nonprofit foundation gave $61 million to nonprofit and government organizations from 2010 to 2016, with $7 million of that going to about 500 U.S. schools, an Associated Press analysis found.
More than half of NRA Foundation’s total money during that time went to organizations that said in their grant applications they’d like to boost youth interest in shooting sports, hunting and the military, according to tax returns examined by The Associated Press.
Few of the schools receiving the funds have shown any indication they’ll follow the lead of businesses that are cutting ties with the NRA following last month’s massacre at a Florida high school.
Metlife, Delta and more than a dozen other companies have ended benefits deals offered to NRA members. And L.L.Bean, Kroger, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart said they will no longer sell guns to anyone under 21, a restriction that is stronger than federal laws.
Florida’s Broward County school district is believed to be the first to stop accepting NRA money after a gunman killed 17 people at one of its schools Feb. 14. The teen charged in the shooting had been on a school rifle team that received NRA funding. Denver schools also said they won’t be accepting future NRA grant funding, nor will they accept any equipment granted to them in the 2017-18 school year.
But in some other districts, officials said they have no plans to back away. The grants have gone to a wide array of school programs, including the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, rifle teams, hunting safety courses and agriculture clubs.
In some ways, the mixed reactions to NRA money reflect the nation’s deep political divide over guns. Nearly three-quarters of the schools that received grants are in counties that voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, while a quarter are in counties that voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to the AP analysis. Most are in medium-sized counties or rural areas, with few near major cities.
Without NRA grants, some programs would struggle to stay afloat, officials said. For JROTC groups, which receive most of their money from their respective military branches, the grants have become more important as federal budgets have been cut. Programs at some high schools in Virginia, Missouri and other states have folded in recent years amid the pinch.
Lt. Colonel Ralph Ingles, head of the JROTC program at Albuquerque schools, said the Florida shooting has sparked a conversation about NRA grants, but he doesn’t anticipate cutting ties anytime soon.
“I don’t see anybody really backing down,” he said. “I think it’s just ingrained that we’re going to continue to move forward in a positive direction.”
Bangor High School has one of the largest JROTC programs in Maine, though AP numbers did not show any schools in Maine or New England having received NRA Foundation money.
Other NRA resources are used in Maine. After the Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs in 2015 voted down a bill that would have required Maine’s Board of Education to develop a standardized firearm safety education program for elementary school students, the Maine Department of Education began recommending the NRA’s Eddie Eagle Gun Safety program. It is aimed at teaching children in preschool through third grade about four important steps they should take if they find a gun.
“Whatever I think of the NRA, they’re providing legitimate educational services,” said Billy Townsend, a school board member in Florida’s Polk County district, whose JROTC programs received $33,000, primarily to buy air rifles. “If the NRA wanted to provide air rifles for our ROTC folks in the future, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.”
The grants awarded to schools are just a small share of the $61 million the NRA Foundation has given to a variety of local groups since 2010. But it has grown rapidly, increasing nearly fourfold from 2010 to 2014 in what some opponents say is a thinly veiled attempt to recruit the next generation of NRA members.
The NRA Foundation did not return calls seeking comment.
Annual reports from the pro-gun group said its grant program was started in 1992 and raises money through local Friends of NRA chapters. It said half the proceeds from local fundraisers go to local grants and half goes to the national organization. Tax records showed roughly $19 million in grants going to the group’s Virginia headquarters in 2015 and in 2016.
Besides schools, other typical recipients include 4-H groups, which have received $12.2 million since 2010, Boy Scout troops and councils, which received $4 million, and private gun clubs. Overall, about half the grants go to programs directed at youth.
Maine organizations, mainly game and gun clubs, received 26 grants from 2010 to 2016. The Androscoggin County Fish and Game Association received $24,000 in 2014 for youth equipment. That was the single highest amount in Maine over the seven-year period. The lowest was $498 to the Presque Isle Fish and Game Club in 2015 for training, safety and education.
In 2016, 11 organizations in Maine received $83,386 in grants, according to the NRA Foundation’s 2016 annual report. They are the Auburn Rifle Club, Capitol City Rifle & Pistol Club, Cumberland Rifle & Pistol Club, Maine Operation Game Thief, Monmouth Fish & Game Association, Pine Tree State Rifle & Pistol Association, Pleasant River Fish & Game Conservation Association, Presque Isle Fish & Game Club, Scarborough Fish & Game Association and the Sportman’s Alliance of Maine.
In some parts of the country, shooting clubs draw the same sort of following as any school sport. Bill Nolte, superintendent of the Haywood County district in North Carolina, said he still shows up at school sportsman’s club tourneys even though his son graduated. Starting in sixth grade, students can join the clubs to compete in shooting events, archery and orienteering. For many families, Nolte said, it’s just like any other weekend sports event.
“You take your lawn chair and your coffee in a thermos, and do much like you would do if you were going to a youth soccer or travel basketball or baseball event,” Nolte said, adding that NRA grants have helped buy firearms and ammunition and cover other costs that otherwise would fall to the parents. “We are constantly seeking revenue for sportsman’s club just like we do for cheerleading and track.”
Districts that tallied the largest sums of NRA money typically used it for JROTC programs, including $126,000 given to Albuquerque schools, $126,000 to Broward County and $125,000 to Anchorage, Alaska. The most awarded to a single district was $230,000, given to Roseville schools near Sacramento, California, which say much of the funding went toward ammunition and gear for trap-shooting teams.
Grants are often provided as equipment rather than cash, with schools given rifles, ammunition, safety gear and updates to shooting ranges. Nationally, about $1.3 million was provided as cash, while $6 million was provided through equipment, training and other costs.
Ron Severson, superintendent of the Roseville Joint Union High School District, said no parents have raised concerns over the funding, but administrators may reconsider it in the wake of the Florida shooting.
Bangor Daily News writer Lori Valigra contributed to this report. Follow her on Twitter @LValigra
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