I am publishing the following chapter from David Robb’s upcoming book Virginia Tech and the NRA: Putting Guns into the Hands of Children, with the author’s permission. Mr. Robb is a noted journalist and is the author of Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, and The Gumshoe and the Shrink: The Secret History of the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon Election.
Mr. Robb was the chief labor, legal and investigative reporter at Hollywood's trade papers -- Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter -- for 20 years. He has published articles in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and in numerous other newspapers and magazine.
Virginia Tech and the NRA:
Putting Guns into the Hands of Children
By David Robb
Virginia Tech, the site of the deadliest school shooting massacre in American history, has designated itself a “gun-free zone,” but that hasn’t stopped the university from putting guns into the hands of thousands of Virginia school children.
Last year alone, Virginia Tech, in partnership with the National Rifle Association and the state of Virginia’s 4-H program, taught more than 1,000 kids, ages 9-19, how to shoot guns. According to data provided by 4-H, this included 764 children who were trained to shoot .22 caliber rifles; 350 who were taught how to shoot 9mm pistols, and 215 who were shown how to fire shotguns.
4-H is a federal program of youth development that’s administered by the nation’s 109 land-grant universities under the auspices of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Next year, the National 4-H organization, formed by an act of Congress in 1914, will celebrate its 100th anniversary.
In Virginia, all 4-H programs – including all 4-H shooting sports activities – are administered by Virginia Tech. Today, there are six 4-H educational centers in Virginia and more some 1,000 4-H clubs – including 38 shooting clubs – serving nearly 200,000 youths.
Since the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, the college has helped more than 7,000 children learn how to shoot guns.
In 2010 – three years after the Virginia Tech massacre – Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, flanked by NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, Virginia Tech official John C. Rocovich Jr., and Hokie Bird, the Virginia Tech mascot, took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new $1.3 million indoor shooting sports complex at the W.E. Skelton 4-H Center at Smith Mountain Lake. Rocovich, who serves on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, told the audience of 500, which included Virginia Tech president Charles Steger, that the NRA was one of the largest donors to the regional shooting complex.
The W.E. Skelton 4-H Center, is named after a former regent of Virginia Tech, and its shooting sports complex is named in honor of Rocovich, a member of Virginia Tech’s governing body, the 14-member Board of Visitors.
Rocovich, who served as Rector (chairman) of the Board of Visitors from 2002-04, is a longtime member of the NRA and is a member of the NRA’s “Ring of Freedom,” the gun lobby’s premier donor recognition society.
Speaking at the dedication ceremony, LaPierre said that more people in the U.S. participate in shooting sports than fish, golf or swim. The 4-H center, he said, is a perfect site for the shooting complex, which he said will help teach life skills to young people
Since its opening three years ago, thousands of school children have been given guns to shoot there.
Mike Pohle, whose son Mike Jr. was one of the 32 people killed during the Virginia Tech massacre, is shocked that Virginia Tech is arming children, and was appalled at the sight of a high-ranking Virginia Tech official and Hokie Bird standing next to Wayne LaPierre at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a Virginia Tech-sponsored shooting range.
“Words are impossible for me to think of that could ever explain the feeling of disgust and hurt that a picture like this creates when I see the that a leader of the same school where my son was brutally murdered acts in such a hypocritical manner and strongly supports an organization that simply wants to encourage young children to become future gun owners,” he said. “I fully expect this behavior from LaPierre and even McDonnell, but for this to be financially supported by Virginia Tech is a travesty. Their actions are simply horrible. How could they?”
Virginia Tech provides liability insurance for any 4-H campers who might be accidentally – or intentionally – shot at the shooting range, and in the event of a shooting, the camp’s policy handbook requires that all shooting instructors “will have a two-way radio and first aid kit and will be certified in first aid/CPR.” The handbook also requires that all accidental shootings and “near-misses” be reported to the Virginia Tech Office of Risk Management.
Cathy Sutphin, associate director of 4-H in Virginia, said that two or three years ago, a 4-H camper was accidentally shot in the chest at a 4-H shooting sports event in the state. The child was hospitalized, but survived.
Safety guidelines at a 4-H shooting camp in Tennessee try to prepare their staff and volunteers for the death of a camper on the shooting range.
“Could it happen? YES!” the Tennessee guidelines state.
“What would you say when parents come to camp to find out what happened to their dead son or daughter?” the guidelines grimly ask the staff and volunteers. “How would you face them?”
“Nothing,” the guidelines state, “would ruin a camp and future camps any quicker than serious injury or death at a 4-H camp.”
Officials at the Airfield 4-H Educational Center in Wakefield, Virginia – which is also overseen by Virginia Tech – have found a legal solution to those troublesome questions.
At a “4-H/NRA Youth Shooting Camp” held there in 2009, campers and their 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, the Fairfax-based gun lobby for more than 5 million gun owners, has played a vital role in funding 4-H shooting sports in Virginia and in all the other 46 states that have 4-H shooting sports programs. Only Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island don’t have gun-shooting activities, and as a result, don’t have to ask the NRA and the firearms industry for money and support.
On its official website, the NRA even lists the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Center as an “NRA Club.” And according to the NRA, the objectives of all NRA Youth Clubs “must be consistent with those of the NRA.”
The NRA co-sponsors the annual “Virginia 4-H/NRA Shooting Education Camp at Holiday Lake 4-H Center,” and through the NRA Foundation and the Virginia Friends of the NRA, funds dozens of 4-H clubs and educational centers throughout the state.
On its website, the Freeland 4-H Shooting Club notes that “the NRA is Freeland’s largest financial backer.”
In 2009 alone, records of the Virginia Friends of the NRA show that it gave $3,700 to the Smith Mountain Lake 4-H Camp; $6,489 to the Holiday Lake 4-H Summer Shooting Camp; $4,923 to the Southeast 4-H Camp; $2,000 to the Virginia 4-H Shooting Education Council; $2,341 to the Virginia 4-H Shotgun Team; $3,285 to the Fauquier Junior 4-H Gun Club; $1,810 to the Virginia 4-H Small-bore Rifle Team, $1,000 to the Goochland 4-H Shooting Education Club, and $20,000 more to eight other 4-H shooting clubs around the state.
In May of 2006, Virginia Friends of the NRA was honored by the Virginia Cooperative Extension – the agency that connects Virginia’s two land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and the Virginia State University, to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture – for “its ongoing support of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.”
NRA, Virginia 4-H, and Virginia Cooperative Extension websites are replete with reports of NRA funding, support and co-sponsorship of Virginia 4-H shooting programs.
In 2011, Jennifer Bowen, a Virginia Tech employee and Extension Agent for 4-H Youth Development, wrote in a quarterly report that “the Prince Edward 4-H Shooting Education Club received a grant from the NRA for $1,174 to expand from air rifles to .22 rifles.” Earlier this year she wrote: “The Prince Edward 4-H Shooting Education Club received a grant from the NRA Foundation for $1,761.08 to support the shotgun program.”
In its 2012 annual report, the NRA Foundation, disclosed that it had helped fund the shooting sports programs that year at more than 370 4-H Clubs around the country, including 20 in Virginia.
The NRA and 4-H share a history dating back to the mid-1970s, when 4-H first started its national shooting 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’d had the name of his street in Fairbanks, Alaska, officially changed to NRA Lane.
One of the many organizational recommendations coming out of this 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 (NSSF), which is based in Newtown, Connecticut, just a few miles from the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Like the NRA, the NSSF is stridently opposed to gun control efforts.
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, the NRA’s 2nd vice president and future president, 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, vice president and future president of the NRA; 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. For the year 2001 alone, 4-H was awarded more than $600,000 in grants through the NRA Foundation.”
Also serving on the National 4-H Shooting Sports Foundation’s board were G. Patrick McDonald, Beretta USA’s vice president of sales and marketing; Bill Stevens of the Federal Cartridge Company; Margaret Hornady-David, vice president of Hornady Manufacturing, makers of “accurate, deadly and dependable” ammunition, and Rob Coburn, president and CEO of Savage Sports, a firearms manufacturing company.
In 2005, Coburn, who was the chairman of the Foundation’s board, 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.”
Commenting on the award, 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 honoured by their recognition."
The National 4-H Shooting Sports Foundation was dissolved in 2007 by Cathann Kress, 4-H director of Youth Development and 4-H, and the USDA’s liaison to the National 4-H Shootings Sports Foundation.
Margaret Hornady, the National 4-H Shooting Sports Foundation’s first president, said that it was dissolved, not because it was dominated by representatives of the firearms industry, but after its executive director, John “Johnny K” Kvasnicka, had gotten into a heated dispute with Kress.
“They quarreled,” she said. “Kress dissolved us among a bunch of sturm and drang (storm and stress). There were some misunderstandings. We were using the 4-H logo without what she considered adequate permission. We were also using National 4-H’s 501c3. That might have been part of the issue.”
Kress declined comment, as did Lisa Lauxman, her replacement at the USDA.
After the foundation was dissolved, the National 4-H Council was named to be “the primary facilitator of resource development for 4-H at the national level, including soliciting, maintaining and disbursing funds in support of 4-H programs.”
Unlike its predecessor, the National 4-H Council is not dominated by representatives of the firearms industry, although it still seeks their support.
In its 2008 annual report, the Council noted that the NRA and the NSSF – the trade association for America’s gun-makers and distributors – had each donated “up to $24,999” to 4-H shooting sports that year. The NSSF was listed in the Council’s “Honor Roll” in 2009, 2010, and 2012 for having donated $50,000-$99,999 in each of those years.
Finding money to fund its shooting sports activities is a top priority for the 4-H shooting program in Virginia. To do that, Virginia Tech is constantly reaching out to the NRA and to the firearms industry for support, and alerting its 4-H clubs of approaching application deadlines for NRA grants.
Virginia Tech also has faculty and staff who are familiar with cajoling money from the NRA. One such faculty member is Jason Fisher, who has served on the faculty of Virginia Tech since 2002. In that capacity, he serves as an Extension Agent and Unit Coordinator of 4-H Youth Development in Halifax County, a position he has held since 2003. From 2002-03, he was Extension Agent and Acting Unit Coordinator of 4-H Youth Development in Halifax County, and from 1996-2002, he was Associate Extension for 4-H Youth Development in Halifax County.
During this time, he also served on the state grant allocations committee of the Virginia Friends of the National Rifle Association (2000-2005), and from 1999-2001, served as the chair of the southern region of the Virginia Friends of the NRA.
By law, 4-H is a non-political federal program of youth development, but many of its leaders share similar views on guns and gun control as NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre.
After mass killings at Virginia Tech, Columbine and Sandy Hook, LaPierre repeatedly argued that easy access to guns was not the cause of school shootings.
The National 4-H Shooting Sports Committee agrees.
In a position statement titled “Kids ‘n’ Guns,” the 4-H committee concluded that “easy access to firearms” is not one of the reasons for “the violent behavior we’ve seen in Columbine and other shooting accidents.”
“Access is not the issue,” the committee argued. “The safest location for a responsible gun owner to store a firearm is the secure environment of his or her home.”
In fact, the vast majority of all guns used by children under the age of 16 in accidental or intentional shootings are obtained from the home of a parent, friend or relative.
The committee also concluded that “America has a peaceful gun culture” – a claim belied by the fact that more than 31,000 Americans were killed and another 73,000 injured by guns in 2010; that firearms were used in more than 11,000 homicides in the U.S. that year; and that on average, 33 Americans are killed every day by firearms, which are the third-leading cause of injury-related deaths, after poisoning and motor vehicle accidents.
Like LaPierre, the National 4-H Shooting Sports Committee also believes that “hunting is an ideal and common family practice,” and that “a well-placed shot by a skilled marksman is a more humane cause of death than natural causes experienced by wildlife” – a claim that is disputed by many wildlife and conservation groups.
LaPierre’s claim that the United Nations is “a club of global thugs” bent on “a campaign to establish a permanent system to disarm and subjugate citizens,” is also echoed in the views expressed recently by Sam Lionberger Jr., vice president of facilities at the Skelton 4-H Center, in an August 28, 2013, letter he wrote to the Franklin News-Post.
After the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, Lionberger wrote: “The bill had been pushed hard by the Obama Administration and would have effectively placed a global ban on the import and export of small firearms. It also contained language that would have implemented an international gun registry on all privately owned guns and ammunition.
The NRA led the effort to defeat this treaty; however, our two Virginia Senators, (Mark) Warner and (Tom) Kaine, voted in favor of the bill – and against our 4th Amendment rights granted in our Constitution. Something to remember the next time they are up for re-election.”
In 2011, LaPierre wrote that “over the past three years, the Obama administration and its anti-gun allies have been engaged in a silent but sophisticated long-term conspiracy to... prosecute a full-scale, sustained, all-out campaign to excise the Second Amendment from our Bill of Rights.”
If true, this would violate the President’s oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States – a treasonable offense.
Former President George H.W. Bush, on the other hand, was so outraged by comments that LaPierre made in 1995 – about federal law enforcement agents being “jackbooted thugs...wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms – that he resigned his membership in the NRA in protest.
But still the USDA and its boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, continued to allow 4-H to accept money and support from the NRA. And Virginia Tech and the Virginia 4-H program kept receiving it.
“Since its beginnings in 1993, the Friends of the NRA program has given $400,000 in support of Virginia 4-H Shooting Education programs,” stated an article in the fall 2006 issue of Connections, a publication of Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Over the years, LaPierre has outraged many parents of the victims of mass school shootings with his incendiary opposition to common sense gun control measures like universal background checks and limits on the number of bullets in semi-automatic pistol and rifle magazines. His response is always the same: “We should put armed security in every school.”
And when his calls for more guns at schools are met with resistance from teachers and school administrators across the country, he blames them for putting children’s lives at risk from future shooters.
“Of all the places where good people are denied the right to protect themselves against bad people,” he said, “probably the most tragic results have come at the hands of the academic ruling class at our schools and colleges.”
Despite this, Virginia 4-H and Virginia Tech continued to accept the NRA’s funding and support.
Eleven days after the 1999 Columbine shootings in Colorado, LaPierre took to the stage at an NRA convention a few miles away in Denver and declared, to the outrage of many of the family members of the murder victims, that more guns was the answer to gun violence.
“A lawful, properly-permitted citizen who chooses to carry a concealed firearm not only deserves that right, but is a deterrent to crime,” he said.
In 2012, three days after a gunman, armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle with a 100-round magazine, a shotgun, and two semiautomatic pistols, killed 12 and wounded 70 others at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, LaPierre sent out a fundraising letter saying that President Obama’s re-election would result in the “confiscation of our firearms” and potentially lead to a “ban on semi-automatic weapons.”
That same year, after the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took the lives of 20 first-graders and six adults, LaPierre blamed “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people.” He wasn’t talking about the NRA and the gun industry – he was talking about the video game industry.
He blamed Hollywood for “bringing an ever-more-toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty into our homes.”
And he blamed politicians who “pass laws for gun-free school zones. They issue press releases bragging about them. They post signs advertising them. And in so doing, they tell every insane killer in America that schools are their safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.”
Hundreds of millions of guns and gun owners who allow their children easy access to firearms were not the problem; the answer, he said, was more guns. “I call on Congress today to act immediately,” he said, “to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school.”
Perhaps stationing armed police at every school in the country would reduce the number of school shootings and lower the body-counts. But there is no shortage of other soft targets for deranged gunmen to choose from. There are movie theaters (gunman kills 12, wounds 70 in Aurora theater); houses of worship (gunman kills six at Sikh temple in Wisconsin; gunman kills seven, wounds four at the Living Church of God in Wisconsin); diners (gunman kills 23, wounds 27 at Luby’s Cafeteria in Texas); fast-food restaurants (gunman kills 21, wounds 19 at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, Ca.); hair and nail salons (gunman kills eight at beauty parlor in Seal Beach, Ca.); rest homes (gunman kills eight at nursing home in North Carolina); motels (gunman kills nine at a Howard Johnson motel in New Orleans); law offices (gunman kills eight at San Francisco law firm), department stores (gunman kills eight shoppers at Westroads Mall in Omaha), and post offices (gunman kills 14 at post office in Oklahoma; gunman kills four at post office in Michigan).
There have been mass shootings in offices, factories, warehouses, hospitals and bars. There have been mass shootings in barber shops, pawn shops, gas stations, convenience stores and spas. There have been mass shootings in playgrounds, night clubs, parking lots, toy stores and zoos. There have been mass shootings in hospitals, funeral parlors, pool rooms, bowling alleys, casinos and gyms. There have been mass shootings at rock concerts, county fairs, rifle ranges, bus stops, and parades.
To protect them all with armed police and security guards would create the type of “jack-booted” police state that LaPierre professes to hate.
For LaPierre, gun control is not the answer, nor is limiting the magazine-size of semiautomatic rifles and pistols.
In 2011, after a gunman armed with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol killed six and gravely wounded Rep. Gabby Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, LaPierre said: “When they tell you that a government ban on certain firearms or magazines will somehow make you safer, don’t buy it, not for one second.”
He said the same thing after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, in which a gunman brought two semi-automatic pistols and a backpack full of 10- and 15-round magazines and nearly 400 rounds of ammunition to the school campus that day.
“Whether (the shooter) carried five 10s (10-round magazines] or 10 fives, does it really make a difference? Anybody who thinks that’s the issue is kidding themselves.”
And through it all, Virginia Tech and the 4-H program it administers has continued its association with the NRA.
Amy McCune, NIFA’s National Program Leader in the Division of Youth and 4-H, sees nothing wrong with the 4-H program’s long association with the NRA.
“I did not find any reference to 4-H on the NRA website that would indicate any formal relationship between the two organizations or any indication that either organization was endorsing the other,” she said.
In fact, a Texas 4-H club’s website urged its members to “please join the NRA,” echoing Wayne LaPierre’s plea: “Join the NRA, America!”
The NRA has also used the 4-H name and emblem to show an affiliation of the two groups.
On one Friends of the NRA website, for instance, the 4-H name and emblem appear directly under the Missouri Friends of the NRA name and emblem.
The 4-H name and emblem – a green four-leaf clover – are protected under federal statute Title 18, U.S. Code 707, which affords the 4-H name and emblem the same protection as the Seal of the President of the United States.
McCune also found nothing wrong with the NRA website listing over 100 4-H organizations – including four in Virginia – as NRA Clubs, even though stewardship of the 4-H name and emblem is given, by law, to her boss – the Secretary of Agriculture.
“The 4-H name and emblem is known and recognized the world over,” NIFA states on its website. “The popularity and reputation of the 4-H name and emblem makes it a desirable target for exploitation by commercial vendors, web sites, organizations, etc.”
NIFA’s list of entities that have received approval from USDA to use the 4-H name and emblem includes nearly 100 companies and organizations. The National Rifle Association, which is listed on 4-H and Virginia Tech websites as a co-sponsor of numerous 4-H shooting activities, is not one of them.