The mass shooting last month in Maine — perpetrated by an Army reservist allowed to keep his guns reportedly bought days before he underwent psychiatric evaluations due to his erratic behavior that included hearing voices that were not there — briefly reopened debate about whether a standardized red-flag law could have prevent the massacre of 18, and the injury of 13 others. Each new shooting rampage seems to elicit fresh conversation about a crackdown on semi-automatic weapons and the need to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill. Met with resistance from the gun lobby, those cries are stifled amid patronizing calls for it being “a time to heal” — until the next massacre re-opens the wound.
In light of the latest shooting, how does it look that every year, a federal program trains 500,000 children as young as 8 years old to shoot guns, funded by more than $1 million from the NRA and the gun manufacturing lobby?
Cue the arguments over whether gun manufacturers are indoctrinating the next generation of responsible gun owners, versus that the gunmakers and gun lobby are doing something akin to hooking kids on nicotine by teaching them to smoke while underage. What is indisputable is that while politicians fail to get serious about red flag statutes with teeth, this well-funded program is quietly ingraining a new generation into gun culture.
The federal program – the National 4-H Shooting Sports Program – is part of the 4-H youth development organization, which is administered by the nation’s 109 land-grant universities under the auspices of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. That is an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is headed by the Secretary of Agriculture, who reports directly to the President of the United States and is a member of the president’s Cabinet.
California is one of 47 states whose 4-H programs offer shooting sports to children – only those in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island don’t. But California’s 4-H doesn’t accept NRA money. Five years ago, California’s 4-H program, which had previously accepted tens of thousands of dollars from the NRA Foundation, severed ties with the NRA and announced that it would no longer be taking its money.
“There are times when we must demonstrate our values,” wrote Dr. Glenda Humiston, vice president of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, which oversees the program, in a March 13, 2018, newsletter. “UC has done that previously by divesting to end apartheid and refusing to accept funds from tobacco sales. Our decision to not pursue NRA funding for youth programs has nothing to do with the Second Amendment or opinions on best ways to ensure child safety. We are parting ways with the NRA now because they have become a polarizing, divisive force across the US and their recent treatment of young adults does not align with 4-H values on civic engagement.”
In July 2022, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill passed by the state’s legislature that prohibits the firearms industry “from advertising or marketing any firearm-related product in a manner that is designed, intended, or reasonably appears to be attractive to minors.”
And yet, the federal 4-H program continues to make shooting guns attractive to little kids, with funding from the NRA and the gun lobby.
Recent federal tax records show that the National 4-H Shooting Sports Program receives more than $1 million a year from the NRA Foundation, as well as funding from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms trade association based in Newtown, CT, headquartered just three miles from the site of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that killed 26 people, including 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7.
Like the NRA, which represents gun owners, the NSSF, which represents gun manufacturers, is stridently opposed to gun-control efforts, and both were directly involved in the creation of the federal government’s kids and guns program.
Established in 1990, the NRA Foundation is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that raises tax-deductible contributions in support of a wide range of firearms-related public interest activities of the National Rifle Association. Over the past two decades, it’s awarded more than $426 million in grants in support of shooting sports. Its website notes that “Boy Scouts and 4-H groups are among the most frequent recipients of funding.”
NRA Foundation’s IRS Form 990 tax filings show that in 2019 it contributed more than $1.5 million to 168 4-H groups nationwide to allow kids as young as 9 years old to shoot firearms. In 2020, NRA Foundation tax records show that it contributed another $1 million to 128 different 4-H clubs for their shooting programs.
“Local 4-H Shooting Sports clubs are open to all youth ages 8 to 18,” National 4-H Shooting Sports notes on its website. “4-H teaches a shooting sport to about 500,000 boys and girls each year. Shooting sports can be gratifying for youngsters, especially those who aren’t athletes. The program provides a supportive environment in which young people can experience hands-on, fun learning experiences.”
Age limits differ from club to club. Sandusky County 4-H Shooting Sports in Ohio notes on its website that “Members must be at least 9 years old as of January 1st to shoot firearms.” In 2019, it received more than $11,000 in funding from the NRA Foundation.
The 4-H Shooting Education program notes that it “uses shooting as a vehicle to teach youth ages 9 to 19 life skills such as responsibility, self-discipline, and teamwork. The following disciplines are used to teach these life skills – archery, muzzle-loading, pistol, rifle, and shotgun. Through these disciplines, youth also learn firearm safety and marksmanship.”
The Missouri 4-H program claims on its website that “America has a peaceful gun culture,” and that 4-H shooting sports are good for children. “Don’t shooting programs like those run by 4-H help spread American’s violent gun culture?” it asks. “No! In fact, there is ample evidence that the opposite is true,” it says. “The 4-H shooting sports program is designed to teach good self-concept and character, and to promote the highest standards of safety and ethical behavior. In addition, with 60-80 million gun owners in America, and the vast majoring of them using guns safely and responsibly, America has a peaceful gun culture.”
In 2019, the Missouri 4-H Foundation received more than $41,000 from the NRA Foundation – more than any other 4-H organization that year.
California 4-H shows that youth development can be achieved without NRA funding. And 4-H programs in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island show that it can be done without guns.
Shooting accidents at 4-H-sponsored events are rare, but they do happen. A spokesperson for 4-H in Virginia said that a 4-H camper was accidentally shot in the chest several years ago. The child was hospitalized, but survived.
Safety guidelines at a 4-H shooting camp in Tennessee tried to prepare their staff and volunteers for the death of a camper on the shooting range. “Could it happen? YES!” the Tennessee guidelines stated. “What would you say when parents come to camp to find out what happened to their dead son or daughter? How would you face them?”
“Nothing,” the guidelines added, “would ruin a camp and future camps any quicker than serious injury or death at a 4-H camp.”
4-H programs have also taken steps to indemnify themselves – and the NRA – in the event a kid gets shot. In 2009, the Airfield 4-H Educational Center in Wakefield, Virginia, held a “4-H/NRA Youth Shooting Camp” where parents were required to sign a liability release form that read: “We understand that the camp is conducted by volunteers who have the best interest of our child at heart and we hold them blameless for any unforeseen mishaps. Likewise, we hold blameless the Airfield 4-H Education Center, and the National Rifle Association.”
The NRA and 4-H share a history dating back to the mid-1970s, when 4-H first started its national shooting sports program. The alliance began in Texas, when Tom Davison, an NRA member and a past Assistant Director of Extension at 4-H, developed a youth shooting program there.
Hearing about the program, Bill Stevens, an executive at the Federal Cartridge Company – a manufacturer of shotgun shells and bullets – called Wayne Sheets, director of the NRA’s Education and Training Division, and asked him to come to Texas to have a look. Impressed with what he saw, Sheets agreed to help expand Davison’s program. A team of NRA volunteers was organized to take the shooting program state-wide.
In 1979, using the Texas program as a model, the NRA hosted an organizational meeting to expand the 4-H shooting program nationwide. In attendance were 4-H representatives from Texas, Minnesota, New York, Minnesota, Washington and Maryland. A top USDA official – Kemp Swiney, the USDA’s Program Leader for 4-H and Youth – was also on hand.
Representing the NRA were Wayne Sheets; Jim Norine, director of the NRA’s Hunter Services, and Joe Nava, an NRA-certified shooting instructor who had the name of his street in Fairbanks, Alaska, officially changed to NRA Lane.
One of the many organizational recommendations coming out of that initial meeting was “that the program should have a hard-hitting, saleable title – 4-H Shooting Sports” – so that the program could garner the “private sector support” needed to fund it.
Much of that private funding would end up coming from the NRA, from gun manufacturers, and from the firearms industry’s trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Today, the 4-H shooting sports program is one of the largest youth shooting sports programs in the United States.
Minutes of annual National 4-H Shootings Sports Committee meetings show that in the early days of the program, NRA officials were frequently in attendance at committee meetings, and that NRA officials even sat as members of the committee, including Sandra Froman, a future NRA president and its 2nd vice president at the time, and Matt Szramoski, the NRA’s manager of Youth Development.
Some years later, a non-profit organization was formed to help fund 4-H shooting sports clubs around the country. It was called the National 4-H Shooting Sports Foundation – the same as the gun manufacturing lobby, only with ‘4-H’ added.
And like its namesake, the board of directors of the 4-H Shooting Sports Foundation was dominated by representatives from the firearms industry, including Sandy Froman, Doug Painter, president of the NSSF; Eric Johanson, vice president of the NRA Foundation; and David Kulivan, the NRA’s program coordinator for Youth Programs, who in 2002 wrote a column that appeared in the second issue of the National 4-H Shooting Sports Newsletter touting the NRA’s support of 4-H shooting programs.
“The NRA has been the largest single financial contributor to 4-H Shooting Sports,” he wrote, “and we anticipate more productive years of cooperative efforts between our organizations. At both the national and local level, the NRA and 4-H are a winning combination. Through the NRA Foundation, we have provided over $2 million in support of 4-H educational programs and continue to contribute more money to local 4-H groups than any other organization.”
Also serving on the National 4-H Shooting Sports Foundation’s board were G. Patrick McDonald, vice president of sales and marketing for firearms manufacturer Beretta USA; Bill Stevens of the Federal Cartridge Company; Rob Coburn, president and CEO of Savage Sports, a firearms manufacturing company, and Margaret Hornady David, vice president of the Hornady Manufacturing Company, the lead sponsor of this year’s 4-H Shooting Sports National Championships.
In 2005, Coburn, who was the chairman of the National 4-H Shooting Sports Foundation’s board of directors, attended the NRA board of directors meeting in Houston to present them with a “special recognition award” for their support of 4-H shooting programs.
“The NRA and 4-H have teamed for over 25 years to give youngsters the opportunity to grow in the shooting sports,” he said. “Today, more than 300,000 youths and 40,000-plus instructors participate in 4-H shooting sports across the U.S. This amazing success could not have been achieved without the help of the National Rifle Association and The NRA Foundation.”
Today, that number has grown to 500,000 youths shooting guns in 4-H programs nationwide.
Commenting on the award, then-NRA president Sandra Froman, who was also the immediate past president of the 4-H Shooting Sports Foundation, said, “I’m pleased that the NRA, its board of directors and staff have been involved with 4-H shooting sports from the very beginning. They have a lot to be proud of, and NRA is honored by their recognition.”