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The NRA talks big on school safety, spends very little
The 2022 NRA convention was held just three days after the school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas that left 19 students and two teachers dead. In his address to attendees, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre described the organization as a champion of school safety.
"We need to protect our schools," LaPierre said. "Because our children... are our most treasured and precious resource and they deserve safety and protection. That's why the NRA launched our School Shield program, to help promote and fund the necessary security that every schoolchild needs and deserves."
The School Shield program was launched by the NRA almost a decade ago, after 20 students and 6 adults were murdered in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Today, the NRA website says the School Shield program makes the NRA "America’s Leading Charitable Organization Helping to Protect Our Children." According to the website, "NRA School Shield® is committed to generating the funding necessary to sustain a consistent and accessible source of financial support made available to schools across America."
NRA financial documents leaked to The Reload, a conservative publication that focuses on firearms issues, tell a very different story. The documents reveal that in the first eight months of 2021, the NRA — which had total revenues of $282 million last year — spend just $13,900 on School Shield. The NRA estimated that less than $20,000 would be spent on the program for all of 2021. In other words, the NRA spent about 0.007% of its 2021 revenue on school safety issues.
To put that level of spending into perspective, LaPierre spent $39,000 on designer suits during one visit to Zegna in Beverly Hills and billed it to the NRA. Between 2004 and 2017, LaPierre spent $274,695.03 at Zegna, according to correspondence released during a legal dispute with the NRA's former ad agency. The NRA defended the expense to the Wall Street Journal, saying "LaPierre’s clothing expenses were justified due to his many public appearances." LaPierre could afford to purchase his own clothes. In 2019, the latest data available, LaPierre was paid more than $1.8 million by the NRA, which is a tax-exempt non-profit organization.
The grants to schools themselves are handled through a related organization, the NRA Foundation. And a look at tax filings by the NRA Foundation paints a similar picture. Between 2013 and 2017, the NRA foundation reported just three grants under the School Shield program totaling less than $200,000. All three grants were made in 2014.
In 2018, the NRA foundation reported 20 grants totaling $384,179. That was a reflection, according to a lawsuit, of former NRA president Oliver North's insistence that School Shield become a "real" program. (Soon thereafter, North was ousted from the organization.) North's effort, however, was still modest. There are more than 130,000 K-12 schools in the United States.
In 2019, the most recent year available, the NRA Foundation distributed tens of millions of dollars but reported no grants under the School Shield program. The NRA Foundation did report dozens of grants to schools to support competitive shooting programs.
Since 2019, the "grant" section of the School Shield website has displayed this message: "[o]ur recent grant application is now closed," according to archive.org.
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Lawsuit alleges that School Shield was a fundraising front
A Texas lawsuit filed by Ackerman McQueen, the NRA's former ad agency, alleges that School Shield was a "shell program" that LaPierre deployed to boost fundraising. Ackerman McQueen argues that the purpose of School Shield was to increase revenue and the NRA "never had any intention or meaningful ability to execute (or execute competently)."
In March, on the eve of trial, the NRA and Ackerman McQueen settled their claims and counterclaims for an undisclosed sum. The settlement avoided a trial where the facts about School Shield and other aspects the NRA's activities would be publicly disclosed.
The problem with School Shield, beyond funding
The paltry funding for School Shield is a reflection of the NRA's hollow commitment to the safety of K-12 students. But the policies underlying School Shield are also deeply flawed.
The primary recommendation of the School Shield program is place more armed law enforcement officers at schools. But mass shootings at Uvalde, Columbine and Virigina Tech all took place despite the presence of armed officers on campus. Critics of the program also note that placing armed officers at every school would "increase juvenile contact with the criminal justice system" and "increase the potential for injuries and deaths from firearms."
Other recommendations of the School Shield program are dystopian. The NRA recommends that schools eliminate trees near buildings "to prevent roof and upper-level window access to school property." Any trees that remain should be trimmed "to permit cross-campus visibility." Schools should also avoid "dense vegetation close to buildings, as it may screen various forms of illicit activity." Instead, schools should plant "thorn-bearing and sharp-leaved plant species to create natural physical barriers to deter aggressors." The report also recommends "hardening" campuses by "installing ballistic protective glass," creating a single point of entry with "an entrapment area."
School Shield still is central to the political debate about guns
While the NRA is spending very little money on the School Shield program, its recommendations are extremely influential politically. After any school shooting, Republican members of Congress repeat the recommendations of School Shield as an alternative to any proposal limiting access to guns.
After Uvalde, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) went on Fox News and recommended having "one door into and out of the school, and have ... armed police officers at that door." He repeated those recommendations a few days later at the NRA convention.
The proposal is completely unworkable since many schools "have thousands of children, teachers and staff who could take hours to funnel in and out of a single entrance every day." Other schools "have multiple buildings, with children and staff often moving among them."
In 2019, after another major school shooting at Santa Fe High School, Texas passed a new law that "allowed districts to 'harden' schools from external threats." Schools, however, "didn’t receive enough state money to make the types of physical improvements lawmakers are touting." Uvalde's school district "received $69,000" from a "state grant to enhance physical security" in January 2020. That investment — and the presence of numerous armed officers — did not prevent last month's shooting. More broadly, there is no evidence "that beefing up security in schools has prevented any violence."
Nevertheless, the NRA's position continues to dominate among Republicans in Congress. Because any package addressing gun violence would need the support of at least 10 Senate Republicans, the chances of any meaningful reform are slim.