KEY POINTS TO KNOW:
- In wake of Sandy Hook, the NRA launched a school safety program
- Despite lofty goals, School Shield is falling short of promises
- Many of the schools that received money used it for non-firearm-related projects
You were right to feel hopeless. Gun safety was a lost cause. The National Rifle Association was invincible, and the Republican Party was never going to defy it. The failure to alter that reality after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School — 10 years ago on Wednesday — choked off our last faint wisp of hope.
If losing those 6- and 7-year-olds couldn’t drive that change, nothing would.
But we had it wrong. Gun safety wasn’t buried in Newtown, Conn. The modern safety movement was born that day.
Sandy Hook unleashed a slow-motion tsunami of determination that culminated this June in the first significant act of Congress on gun safety in nearly three decades. Fifteen Republican senators broke with the N.R.A. — unthinkable in the old political landscape.
Sandy Hook galvanized two women. The day after the shooting, a suburban mother, Shannon Watts, started Moms Demand Action, which morphed into Everytown for Gun Safety after merging with another group. Three weeks after the massacre, the former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords created the forerunner to her gun safety organization, Giffords.
The groups reinvented the feeble “gun control” movement as “gun safety.” The failed gun controllers were a ragtag band of disorganized, underfunded Washington think tanks that never connected with voters or found a compelling message. Who wants to be controlled?
Everytown and Giffords grew into political powerhouses. Giffords cultivated strong candidates for state and local offices and reached out to gun owners, identifying them as allies rather than antagonists. Everytown raised a staggering activist army: It says it has around 10 million supporters — almost double the N.R.A.’s nearly five million dues-paying members. Both safety organizations are run by data-driven professionals who employ polling, focus groups and election post-mortems to help candidates test and hone effective messages.
New leaders, new strategies, new coalitions, new organizing principle. And they have been winning deep in gun country. President Biden ran on what was likely the most aggressive gun safety platform embraced by a major party presidential nominee in history — and flipped Georgia and Arizona.
The safety movement was just reaching critical mass in early 2018 when the Parkland kids rose up. Victims refusing victimhood, they drew 1.4 million to 2.2 million demonstrators across the country to the March for Our Lives — one of the largest protests in American history. The vital missing element was restored: hope. Then they converted hope into action that fall by helping flip the House from Republican to Democratic control, finally demonstrating that gun safety was no longer politically toxic; it could help candidates win.
Until the Parkland uprising, I was a doubter, too. I had covered the Columbine shooting as a reporter and wrote a book about it. Children kept being shot. But two decades later, I spent nearly a year with the Parkland kids when I was researching another book, and I watched them team with Giffords and Everytown, supercharging their efforts.
Wayne LaPierre, the longtime chief executive of the National Rifle Association, blamed gun-free zones for the 2012 massacre and those before it. He called schools “utterly defenseless,” vulnerable to attacks by “monsters and predators.”
Now, a decade after LaPierre pledged the NRA’s financial support for its School Shield initiative, gun violence prevention groups say evidence shows the organization awarded requests at pennies on the dollar and the program has not made a dent in school violence.
Whereas LaPierre made headlines by promising millions to arm teachers, public records obtained by the group Everytown and analyzed by USA TODAY indicates that most of the money has gone to non-firearm-related expenses such as intercoms, fences and film to make windows bullet resistant.
And, Everytown says, the dozens of grants written around the nation collectively amounted to about $2 million – often coming in far under what districts requested. The total also is far less than what the gun rights group has spent on other initiatives, including a reported $130 million in legal fees from 2014 to 2020.
“The numbers prove that the School Shield program was first and foremost about protecting the NRA from bad press, rather than protecting American schoolchildren from mass shootings,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
Records show that the NRA awarded the first three school grants between 2014 and 2017, totaling about $189,000. Then, after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, spending ramped up.
Despite a spate of mass shootings, however, the program has been largely dormant since 2020 and the School Shield office was furloughed amid financial turmoil at the NRA. In August, the organization announced it would again be accepting grant applications.
The NRA declined to release details about its grants, so the public records shed the most complete depiction to date. A spokeswoman said it has contributed to the training of hundreds of law enforcement and school resource officers across 29 states.
“We are proud of NRA School Shield and our partnerships with many law enforcement, education and other organizations to promote school safety and firearms training,” Amy Hunter with the NRA told USA TODAY. “This program promotes school security and highlights the need to protect children, our most valuable resource.”
An insider no longer with the NRA says the School Shield program was designed with lofty intentions and scored political points, but has never lived up to expectations.
Josh Powell, former chief of staff to Wayne LaPierre, described the program in his tell-all book, “Inside the NRA.” He wrote that after joining the nonprofit in 2016 he told executives that School Shield was “a Ferrari in a garage” after discovering it had only been used in three schools.
By his telling, he marched into LaPierre’s office and asked, “Do you know how many schools the School Shield Program has assessed?”
When LaPierre had “no idea,” Powell alleged in his book, he responded, “It’s not three hundred, it’s not three thousand, it’s three. The media is going to kill you when you go on TV and some reporter leaks that number out. They will dismember you on live TV.”
Powell told USA TODAY this week that the program has fallen short not because of lack of funding, but because of bureaucratic problems within the NRA.
“There were people internally that just didn’t want to see it succeed,” Powell said. “I was mad about it then and I’m still mad about it.”
Schools use NRA funds for security
Cicero District 99, a near-west suburb of Chicago, is always scraping together funding for its 15 schools. It looked to the NRA for help in 2018, in the wake of Parkland, asking for $225,000 for a comprehensive safety plan.
A few months later, the NRA approved the grant at $7,560 – for survival blankets and first aid kits.
Anthony Grazzini, the district’s grants director, said he was still thankful for the funds and that applying for the grant led them to deeply evaluate school safety.
“Obviously there’s a tremendous amount of work in applying for a grant and honestly more money would have been great, but the process allowed us to take a hard look at all of our facilities and plan,” Grazzini said.
In rural Chouteau, Oklahoma – with a population of about 2,000 – the school district superintendent got every penny her predecessor requested in 2018: $15,000 to train and arm teachers.
Superintendent Lori Helton said the district now has five armed employees who have gone through the state’s training program to become certified. The five trained staff members recertify three times a year at a local gun range.
“It would take 20 minutes for law enforcement to get here in some instances so you don’t have that time,” Helton said. “It’s not controversial to arm teachers here.”
Most of the nation’s schools prohibit firearms on school grounds, with exceptions for law enforcement. At least 10 states – Idaho, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming – allow certain school employees to carry firearms on campus, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, shooting this summer, legislators in Ohio and Louisiana considered measures to arm teachers and school staff.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed his state’s new law in June to allow staff to carry on campus with 24 hours of training. Louisiana’s Legislature rejected its version of the bill over the summer.
Another rural district in Portageville, Missouri, applied and received NRA grant funding in 2018. Its leaders requested $47,496 for a campus security officer,among other initiatives. Ultimately, the NRA awarded $7,744 for window film.
Superintendent Michael Allred said the shot-resistant film was installed in the front of the schools and on cafeteria-adjacent windows.
“We were grateful for whatever we did get,” Allred said. “It’s a very tiny sliver of the overall pie with security cameras, cards, lockdowns, doors.”
But, he noted, none of it may make a difference.
“You can spend millions of dollars in security,” he said, “and we’ve seen all it takes is for someone to prop a door open and it can make for a bad situation quickly.”