Last Tuesday, three weeks after a gunman killed 17 people at one of its schools, Broward County, Florida announced that it would stop accepting money from the NRA Foundation. Between 2010 and 2016, Broward county received $126,000 from the NRA to support shooting training and education programs, including the JROTC marksmanship team of which the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was a member.
According to a recent AP analysis of the NRA Foundation’s public tax records, the NRA gave $7.3 million to about 500 schools from 2010 through 2016. 4-H youth groups received $12.2 million during those years and Boy Scout groups received $4 million. Overall, about half of the grants made during those years— which totaled $61 million— went to programs directed at children. AP found that the NRA’s investment in youth education programs has grown rapidly in recent years, increasing by nearly four times from 2010 to 2014. The geography of grant recipients maps the country’s political divide over guns, with nearly three quarters of schools that received grants located in counties that voted for Trump in 2016.
While the NRA’s financial investment in youth shooting programs has surged in recent years, the organization has long emphasized young shooters in its programming. But it wasn’t until the early ‘80s— not coincidentally the same decade many have noted as the turning point in the NRA’s radicalization— that the NRA adopted an official mandate to “introduce as many of our nation’s youth as possible to the legitimate use of firearms.” Today, the website boasts that more than one million youth participate in NRA shooting sports events and NRA-backed programs.
“What drives the NRA and the gun industry today is the fact that household gun ownership is in a steady decline,” says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy organization. Last year, American gun ownership declined to its lowest point in nearly 40 years — from half of American households in 1978 to about a third today. “The traditional gun buying public— white males— is aging,” Sugarmann explains. “To borrow a phrase from the tobacco industry, the NRA and gun manufacturing industry are trying to find ‘replacement shooters’ to take their place.”
The goals are multifold. For gun manufacturing companies, a larger youth base means expanding sales— many companies now design and market smaller, lighter guns specifically for children— and securing their future consumer base. For the NRA, it means sustaining a pro-gun base for political action. At the NRA’s 1996 Annual Meeting in Dallas, Texas, then-President Marion Hammer laid out the stakes: “It will be an old-fashioned wrestling match for the hearts and minds of our children, and we’d better engage our adversaries with no holds barred….If we do not successfully reach out to the next generation, then the freedom and liberty that we’ve lived for — and that many of our ancestors have died for — will not live beyond us.”
The motivations of the gun industry and gun lobby in targeting youth can’t be separated, says Sugarmann, and the funding behind youth shooting programs reflects this: research by the Violence Policy Center shows that manufacturers of firearms have donated hundreds of thousands of tax-deductible dollars to the NRA Foundation, which funds the organization’s youth education programs, which, in turn, provide a market for children’s gun models.
Beyond cultivating the next generation of gun lobbyists and consumers, NRA youth education programs are already helping shape legislation. In 2016, the gun violence prevention organization The Safe Tennessee Project, brought a bill to the Tennessee legislature that would have penalized adult gun owners who leave loaded guns unlocked and accessible to children under the age of 13. Beth Joslin Roth, the organization’s executive director, decided to call the bill MaKayla’s law in honor of 8-year-old MaKayla Dyer, who was shot and killed by her 11-year-old old neighbor in White Pine, Tennessee in 2015. 14 states currently have negligent firearm storage laws; only four of these involve felony charges.
In the weeks leading up to the legislative vote, Roth was optimistic: members of the Senate judiciary committee she spoke to seemed to recognize the value of Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws to the state, which ranks fourth in the nation for accidental shootings, many of which involve children. But then, just days before the vote, the NRA mobilized. NRA members across the state received action alerts urging them to contact their legislators and pressure them to vote against it. A lobbyist from Washington appeared at a senate committee meeting to testify against the bill and met with senators one-on-one in between sessions.
The NRA’s argument was predictable: the bill was an intrusion into people’s right to choose how they store their firearms and how they parent their children. The NRA also cited a more unusual witness: a cartoon character called Eddie Eagle. The NRA’s youngest youth outreach tool, the Eddie Eagle program is offered in public schools to kids ages 4-10, and consists primarily of videos of Eddie Eagle demonstrating gun-safe behavior. With 29 million children having gone through the program (according to the NRA’s website), Eddie Eagle is probably the NRA’s widest-reaching youth program. And, it proved to be a fatal wrench in the Tennessee bill proposal.
According to Roth, the lobbyist’s testimony relied heavily on the effectiveness of the Eddie Eagle program as an argument against CAP laws. “The NRA markets the program in such a way that parents believe that if they let their children participate in the program that is going to somehow protect them in these situations,” Roth says. “But research shows that when presented with the opportunity, half the kids who’ve been through the program are still likely to pick up a gun, and some will pull the trigger.” The bill was defeated a second time last year.
The legislative use of Eddie Eagle is no accident: according to the Violence Policy Center, the program was launched in 1988 in Florida as part of a direct effort to kill CAP legislation. The Eddie Eagle program was successfully invoked in 2016 to crush legislation in Wisconsin nearly identical to the Florida bill. According to the NRA’s action alert against that bill: “If anti-gun legislators were serious about keeping kids safe, they would know that the key to reducing firearm accidents isn’t about prosecuting after the fact, it’s about educating our children on the safe use of firearms. For that reason, the National Rifle Association developed the Eddie Eagle GunSafe® accident prevention program that teaches children to, “STOP, DON’T TOUCH, RUN AWAY and TELL A GROWN-UP.”
Following Broward county’s example, Denver Public Schools promised that it, too, would turn down several NRA grants to be awarded this year. However, with no other schools known to be following suit as of yet, the educators’ boycott of the NRA is proving slower to catch on than the businesses’ boycott. But when children’s education means giving adults a pass, holding onto this funding is a dangerous bargain.