Katie Gibson is a self-described “total nerd” on Woodcreek High School’s speech and debate team, with a keen interest in politics. The 16-year-old junior skews liberal in her political views.
Yet just about every Wednesday and Sunday this time of year, she’s got a box of shotgun shells in a pouch on her waist, her Browning shotgun pressed to her shoulder, and she’s shooting spinning clay discs out of the sky.
“You see that?” she said one recent evening to a coach after blasting a flying disc into powder. A huge grin split her face under the brim of her cap. Minutes earlier, the coach, Roger Martin, had critiqued her shooting stance, offering tips on foot placement and follow-through, not unlike what a coach might say to a student athlete at batting practice or on the driving range.
Indeed, students and coaches at the Woodcreek High School Sportsmen’s Club say the shotgun shooting team isn’t all that different from traditional school sports programs, where the best athletes might aspire to compete in college or the Olympics (skeet and trap shooting are Olympic and collegiate sports).
But the recent revelation that Gibson’s shooting team has received at least $124,559 in grants from the National Rifle Association has thrust local student competitive shooting clubs like hers into a fierce debate in California about whether public schools should accept money from an organization that many in the state view as politically toxic, if not outright dangerous.
It’s something Gibson is conflicted about.
“Should (The NRA) have as political of a mindset?” Gibson said over the blasts from her teammates’ shotguns at the Coon Creek Trap and Skeet Club outside Lincoln. “Probably not. But they definitely do amazing things for our team, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Statewide, the NRA gave about $1 million in cash and noncash grants to public and private schools from 2010 to 2016, according to a McClatchy review of tax data collected by The Associated Press. The AP first reported the NRA Foundation’s grants in March, with many news outlets, including The Sacramento Bee, using the data for local stories.
About $350,000 in grants went to schools in Placer County, mostly to public schools in the Roseville Joint Union High School District, which includes Woodcreek High. The district received more NRA money than any other district in the nation during that period, according to The Associated Press.
Elsewhere in California, the NRA gave about $131,000 in grants to schools in Kern County; $128,000 to schools in Tuolumne County and $117,000 to schools in Sutter County.
School and team officials say the NRA helps provide safety gear such as ear and eye protection for shooters. The NRA grants also cover ammunition at shooting tournaments, helping offset costs in what’s a very expensive sport. Even without the grants, target range fees and practice ammunition alone can cost families more than $5,000 each year, parents say. A new shotgun can easily cost $1,000.
NRA-certified instructors regularly provide safety training to students, but team and school officials say the organization otherwise is hands off, and its politics aren’t part of the programs.
“Obviously as public educators, we’re apolitical,” said Jess Borjon, assistant superintendent at the Roseville high school district. “We don’t take sides on issues. … Our relationship with the NRA is nonexistent in that sense.”
Woodcreek’s shooting program, founded in 2005, is the oldest in the Sacramento region. The program and the NRA grants went largely unnoticed until The Associated Press report came out in March.
“It took us a little bit by surprise, but that’s maybe a little bit of our naivete,” Borjon said.
NRA is controversial, but not in Placer County
The local shooting clubs’ ties to the NRA weren’t secret by any means. Students volunteer at the NRA’s local fundraiser dinners. Granite Bay High School’s trap shooting team website had a “Join NRA” button prominently displayed on the home page of its website. The button has since been taken down, though The Friends of the NRA is listed as a sponsor on the club’s page beside several other local donors.
Perhaps part of the reason why NRA-funded programs stayed under California’s radar for so long is because the shooting teams hold all practices and competitions off campus at target ranges, usually many miles from a school. Guns are never allowed on school grounds.
Another possible reason: The NRA’s right-wing politics hold more appeal in Placer County, which is more conservative than the state as a whole. About 43 percent of voters here are registered Republicans, compared to 25 percent statewide. Placer County’s support for Donald Trump was 20 percentage points higher than in the rest of California.
After recent school shootings — most notably the Parkland, Fla., massacre in which 17 people died — the NRA has faced a new round of criticism for doubling down on its no-compromises defense of the Second Amendment.
Some argue schools ought to follow the lead of businesses that cut financial ties with the group in the wake of the massacres.
“I can fully understand why a community might say, ‘You know what? We think any money coming from the NRA is just dirty,’ ” said David Chipman, senior policy adviser at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “I don’t trust that the NRA would be giving sound, balanced advice about the risks of guns and how they play a role in violence in America.”
Further tainting the organization’s reputation in a Democratic state: the organization has in recent years embraced far-right stances on hot-button issues such as immigration and criticism of the mainstream press. Experts who study the evolution of the NRA say its politics have veered far from what the organization’s primary focus was for decades: gun-safety training and marksmanship programs for shooters and hunters.
“The NRA these days has … moved so far in the other direction,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law who writes about Second Amendment issues. “In recent years the NRA has transformed … into a hard-hitting arm of the Republican Party.”
The NRA counters that it hasn’t changed at all. The NRA Foundation, which provides the grants to student clubs, is the charity wing of the organization, separate from its political lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action.
The NRA Foundation, established in 1990, has provided nearly $369 million in support of shooting sports since its inception, NRA spokesman Jason Brown said in an email. According to the NRA Foundation’s tax forms, most of its revenue comes from donations.
“The NRA is and remains committed to its mission from day one in 1871 – to uphold Second Amendment rights and be the leader in firearm education and training for law-abiding gun owners, including youth shooting sports athletes participating in programs in their communities,” Brown said.
Shooting clubs motivate students to compete
In politically conservative Roseville, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in cutting ties with the organization.
Only one parent spoke out at a board meeting about the NRA program after the AP broke the news about the NRA grants, said Paige Stauss, president of the Roseville high school district’s board of trustees.
School leaders also remain grateful for the NRA’s help.
“I appreciate the people who give to our group including the NRA who help us run this organization without huge expensive costs we couldn’t afford as a public school,” said Woodcreek Principal Becky Rood on a recent visit to practice at Coon Creek, where she fired a shotgun for the first time.
Some parents of competition shooters worry California lawmakers may someday pass a law that would prevent schools from accepting NRA money.
Katie Gibson’s mom, Evelyn, says that would be unfortunate.
Though she works as a consultant for the California Senate Republican Caucus, she said she’s become increasingly put off by the culture war rhetoric the NRA has embraced. But that’s not at all reflective of what the NRA’s grants pay for at the school shooting clubs, she said.
“I think there’s really a lack of understanding about what the programs are about,” Evelyn Gibson said.
To hear parents and students describe them, the shooting clubs operate a lot like high school track programs, complete with regional, state and national competitions several weekends a year.
Hundreds of student athletes attend competitions in which students divided by age groups compete to shoot the most flying clay targets.
School officials say the sport draws in nearly equal numbers boys and girls, who practice and compete together. Coaches say a greater percentage of local students also each year go on to compete at the collegiate level under scholarships than in other sports.
Even for students who aren’t as skilled, school officials say the shooting clubs provide an important activity for those who might not otherwise fit in with traditional sports teams or extracurricular activities.
“This gives students who might not have a place a place,” said Rood, the Woodcreek principal. “And they feel connected. They feel connected with other students. They feel connected with really positive adults.”
Connaire Freeman, a 16-year-old junior on Woodcreek’s team, said he used to play lacrosse, but it wasn’t for him. He and his father, Dan, who’s one of the coaches, said that before Connaire got hooked on shooting sports, he was a couch potato who spent much of his time playing video games.
“I was very lazy,” he said.
Katie Gibson doesn’t have that problem. Aside from speech and debate, she also competes on a local golf team. She said that while her politics may be different from her more conservative teammates, they’ve embraced her. She considers them close friends.
But it’s the individual aspects of the sport that she suspects will make her a lifelong competitive shooter.
“It’s really more a mind game more than anything,” she said. “If your mind is, like, telling you that you’re not going to hit this clay, you’re not going to hit this clay.”