CAPE CORAL, Fla. — Beneath the fluorescent lights of a high school gym, dozens of teenagers took turns firing air rifles at a series of bull’s-eye targets, part of a marksmanship competition that drew students from schools all along the Florida Gulf Coast.
The event was better outfitted than many high school competitions, with lights that illuminated the targets, scopes for spotting downrange and a heavy curtain to keep pellets from going astray, thanks to the help of a key sponsor: the charitable arm of the National Rifle Association.
“A lot of the equipment that you see behind me comes from N.R.A. grants,” Bryan Williams, a retired Army major who teaches in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at Mariner High School in Cape Coral, told the contestants.
That tip of the hat was no casual remark. In order to win N.R.A. sponsorships, records show, military instructors who lead J.R.O.T.C. marksmanship teams at public high schools have repeatedly promised to promote the organization at competitions and in newsletters, post N.R.A. banners at their schools or add the N.R.A. logo to apparel worn by students.
In his pitch, Mr. Williams also offered to provide student testimonials to the organization “to include supporting photographs and storyboards showcasing the equipment and the happy cadets.”
At a time when many districts are going to great lengths to keep guns out of schools, J.R.O.T.C. has become one of the few programs on campuses that promote weapons training.
The N.R.A. has donated more than $5 million in money and equipment since 2015 to support competitive shooting programs at schools, as one of several outside organizations that have provided funding to J.R.O.T.C. programs, according to tax records and other documents. Some of the districts that have received N.R.A. funding, such as the one in Lee County, Fla., include schools that automatically enroll students in J.R.O.T.C. classes in some grades, or otherwise push students to take them, though participation on the marksmanship teams is most often voluntary.
The organization has supported J.R.O.T.C. programs by hosting shooting competitions, highlighting teams in its trade magazine and providing special badges to J.R.O.T.C. shooting competitors.
The programs, which utilize air rifles rather than live-fire weapons, are prevalent in many communities where marksmanship and hunting are popular sporting activities, and parents have credited the instruction with teaching young people to handle guns safely. But schools largely prohibit guns on campus, and the marksmanship teams have at times alarmed teachers and students concerned about school shootings and a rise in gun violence. Some districts have dismantled their J.R.O.T.C. marksmanship programs or had heated debates about how to incorporate them into school life.
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For the National Rifle Association, which has faced rising legal and financial troubles along with declining revenues and membership, the promotional promises offered through J.R.O.T.C. programs provide an entree to a new generation of potential members in a uniquely trusted venue — the public school.
In a statement, a spokesman for the N.R.A. said that the group was proud to fund the shooting teams and that the J.R.O.T.C. instructors’ promotion of the N.R.A. was their choice, not a requirement for funding.
“The N.R.A. Foundation proudly supports firearms education and training for a variety of deserving organizations,” said the spokesman, Andrew Arulanandam. “Grant recipients sometimes voluntarily promote our efforts to bring awareness to the importance of firearms training, gun safety and shooting sports. We are proud of these activities and the way they positively impact students, schools and communities across the country.”
In their bids to obtain N.R.A. grants to fund marksmanship training and competition on campus, J.R.O.T.C. instructors have said the funding will expand the number of teenagers trained in the safe use of firearms and advance the Second Amendment, according to school district documents obtained by The New York Times in response to more than 100 records requests. Some instructors have promised to encourage cadets to join the N.R.A. and have volunteered students to participate in N.R.A. fund-raising events.
“Through this grant, we have the opportunity to engage a set of at-risk students to shooting sports,” an instructor in Kentucky wrote in one application. “The N.R.A. is a widely known and recognized entity in our community, and we look forward to furthering that reputation with our display of commitment and excellence,” another one wrote in California.
A J.R.O.T.C. instructor in Texas wrote that gaining exposure to firearms at school “fosters positive attitudes toward Second Amendment rights for these future voters and their families.”
The promotional payback offered by J.R.O.T.C. instructors in exchange for funding has often been transactional. One instructor said N.R.A. banners at competitions and other J.R.O.T.C. facilities would constitute “ad space” that would be smaller or larger depending on the amount of the N.R.A. contribution. Others promised to recognize the organization online, on the radio or in local newspapers.
At the competition in Florida in April, students and their parents spoke highly of the marksmanship program and J.R.O.T.C. in general, describing how they improved the teenagers’ confidence and focus in school.
Elizabeth Vazquez, who was watching her daughter Eryka from the bleachers, said she loved seeing her daughter blossom in the program.
“She’s enjoying it, she’s happy, so, as a parent, I’m going to support her,” Ms. Vazquez said. “You know, I thought I was going to have a cheerleader or a dancer, but my baby shoots — that’s what she likes — so, OK, I’ll support her.”
The N.R.A. has donated more than $150,000 in money and equipment since 2015 to support competitive shooting programs at Mariner High and other schools in Lee County, on Florida’s west coast, part of $144 million it said it had spent to promote youth shooting sports — in J.R.O.T.C. and other programs — over the last two decades.
Several of the spectators who showed up at the J.R.O.T.C. event in Cape Coral wore shirts with pro-gun logos, including a variation on the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag that read, “Don’t Tread, N.R.A.”
Military recruiters stood by throughout the day and pitched students on the benefits of joining the armed forces, a key point of contention for parents and students who have objected when schools make J.R.O.T.C. enrollment mandatory or automatic for some students.
Michael Sloan, a senior vice commander for a local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, said he was proud to see the teenagers learning how to effectively and safely handle weapons.
“A lot of people say a lot of things about American youth, but seeing you all out here today exercising your Second Amendment rights is something that we’re very, very proud of,” he said, addressing the students as the second day of the competition kicked off. “We love your patriotism. And you hang in there. America’s great, and you’re part of what makes it great.”
But the presence of weapons on campus via J.R.O.T.C. programs has sometimes caused problems.
A high school in Durham, N.C., went into lockdown after someone reported a person on campus with a gun, only for school officials to identify the person as a J.R.O.T.C. cadet doing drills.
In Dover, Del., a J.R.O.T.C. program that wanted to add a marksmanship team ran into a problem: The team’s shooting would violate the city’s strict gun-control code. The program managed to win changes to city code that allowed the cadets to train. The next year, the team won a grant of more than $10,000 from the N.R.A. Foundation.
Some students in Nashua, N.H., objected when a J.R.O.T.C. program applied to add a marksmanship program on campus in 2019. Paula Durant, who was then a senior, said she and some of her classmates had argued that the school was supposed to be a gun-free zone and that the air rifles used by the J.R.O.T.C. program looked genuine. She said students had been on edge after the massacre the year before in Parkland, Fla., where a former student and J.R.O.T.C. cadet wore the J.R.O.T.C. program’s shirt while killing 17 people in a shooting spree.
“There was a lot of anxiety about school shootings,” Ms. Durant said.
She asked school officials at a public meeting to move the marksmanship training off campus, an idea the district ultimately embraced. Afterward, she said, she faced an intense backlash online from people who accused her of being a coward; some made such threatening remarks, she said, that local police officers came to the campus and assured her they were there to support her.
The school board in Broward County, Fla., where the Parkland shooting occurred, decided after the 2018 massacre that it would no longer accept money from the N.R.A.
Some teachers have also expressed reservations over the shooting competitions and weapons training.
Deborah Teal, a longtime instructor at Santa Ana High School in Orange County, Calif., said that she had seen the program provide valuable help to students who were not otherwise involved in school activities, but that she was alarmed by the emphasis on guns at a time when students were dealing with so much gun violence.
“The militarization of the kids, especially vulnerable kids, is what bothered me,” said Ms. Teal, who added that some students at her former school had started an unsuccessful petition to end the marksmanship program.
The program remains at nearby Santiago High School, in Garden Grove, where it has enjoyed support.
Michael H. Manney, a J.R.O.T.C. instructor at Santiago, wrote to the N.R.A. Foundation this year to say that the marksmanship program had helped draw more students into J.R.O.T.C. and made weapons training available to disadvantaged students who might otherwise have had no one to show them how to handle weapons safely.
“Ultimately, we wish to foster esprit de corps among cadets and the community by providing foundational training of firearms handling and use, which prepares young men and women for careers in law enforcement, department of corrections and military,” he wrote in an N.R.A funding application.
The issue of public schools’ receiving direct funding from the N.R.A. Foundation has at times left districts struggling to navigate the optics.
Emails show the J.R.O.T.C. program at East River High School in Orlando, Fla., dealing with headaches in 2020 over how to receive and process N.R.A. money through the school district without attracting controversy. The school’s J.R.O.T.C. instructor, Steven Celeste, proposed a solution to his colleagues that is often used in other districts: sending money through an entity that is not formally part of the school.
“We just have to ensure their grant money goes to the Booster Club Fund and not the School Fund … too much political backlash involved for us and the school,” he wrote.
Mr. Williams, the J.R.O.T.C. instructor in Cape Coral, said the school was more than willing to openly promote the N.R.A. at its competitions in exchange for the funding it received.
“The N.R.A. Foundation, specifically, is probably the most important resource we have in J.R.O.T.C. for our equipment,” he said.
The lack of objection from parents, students and educators over the program is a reflection of how many lessons students take away from marksmanship training that go far beyond shooting, Mr. Williams said.
“What we tell these kids all the time is, ‘Hey, it’s really great if you improved your score, but what we really want you to do is take away some values. We want you to take away some traits that you can apply to real life,’” he said. “Focus, concentration, self-discipline and self-control. That’s what a shooter takes away from marksmanship.”