While the sun is still up, gunshots ring out as Poplar Bluff High School's trapshooting team tries to get in a few extra rounds.
Head coach Sandy Pike gives advice as a new member prepares to aim his shotgun and attempt to shoot a clay target out of the air. She tells him to lift up his weapon, and, when he's ready, say the word to make the disc fly:
The competitive trap season might be over, but that's not stopping the team on a Saturday evening in November.
Since starting in 2010, the trap team has grown from eight to about 30 members, and Pike said that's thanks to outside funding from the National Rifle Association. It's one of 80 K-12 and 4-H programs the NRA Foundation has supported over the years in Missouri.
"We couldn't have done it without them," Pike said.
Between 2010 and 2017, the team received around $42,000 in three grants from the NRA Foundation, the most of any K-12 program in the state from 2010 to 2017. The gun club the team practices at is also applying for a grant to build a new storm shelter.
Missouri school organizations received more than $1 million from the charitable arm of the NRA — the seventh-highest total in the U.S. and the most in the Midwest from 2010 to 2016, according to public tax records and data obtained from The Associated Press.
Organizations like the NRA Foundation have been key to the financial support over the years. Missouri 4-H and K-12 programs received more than $300,000 in 2017 alone, which is almost eight times what they received in 2010.
"The NRA, Friends of the NRA, that's what bought our trailer that we carry everything in," said Donald Cash, whose children have competed with the team for the past nine years. "Of course you can't have the guns at the school so we use the trailer ... a parent pulls it, but the NRA money bought that. So, it's really good. It's unbelievable."
In a written statement to KBIA and the Columbia Missourian, an NRA spokesperson wrote that the surge of grants since 2010 can be attributed to an increase in attendance and donations at NRA fundraising events and the popularity of NRA programs like competitive shooting, hunting and self-defense.
But some, like Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at State University of New York-Cortland who has written five books on gun control, think the foundation's efforts have other implications.
A March 2019 report from the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center said a quarter of people ages 18 to 34 own a firearm — as compared to around 38 percent of people older than 50. Spitzer said the percentage of young people who own guns has been falling over the years. As fewer schools have gun ranges and clubs on campus, organizations like the NRA have intensified their efforts, Spitzer said.
"To compensate, there has been, I think a renewed push to work through organizations and to cultivate and support activities that would put guns in the hands of young people so that they can acquire the gun habit and continue to maintain gun ownership and gun habits into adulthood," Spitzer said.
At a student air rifle tournament at a school in Clever, just outside Springfield, Missouri, students in the gym wait for the signal from a whistle to shoot at their targets. When the whistle blows, the students begin to shoot at a target taped up across across the gym.
The competition is part of the Student Air Rifle Program, which trains schoolteachers so they can teach air riflery to students. The program provides grants to schools to help purchase their equipment, which can cost more than $3,000. Those funds come from the NRA Foundation.
Tristan Record is a 15-year-old who started in the program two years ago. In 2018, he was the state champion. As for his views on guns:
"Some people use them in a bad way, and some people use them in a good way," he said. "I think Air Rifle could encourage people to use rifles and weapons in a good way, in a positive way."
Kessler Bodenstein, an archery and air rifle coach for Clever Schools, said kids he teaches are aware of gun issues like school shootings, which is one of the reasons why he emphasizes safety.
"Those issues, obviously even kids bring that up, you know, because they've seen the news just like we have and they will come to us and say 'we hear about school shooting and here we are shooting in school," Bodenstein said. "And I'm like, 'yeah it's fun, isn't it?' And they're like, 'I know!' because they get the irony of what we're doing even at a young age."
Bodenstein said students have to score 100% on a test about range rules and how to use equipment safely before participating. Jake Hindman, SAR program CEO, said he plans to apply for another NRA Foundation grant. The SAR program is expected to spread to other towns in Missouri and wants to expand to other states like Pennsylvania and Texas.
For the town of Clever, Bodenstein said teaching air riflery makes sense for the community.
"We have a lot of students, and parents and families that are involved in a lot of outdoor activities such as archery and air rifle and hunting and fishing," Bodenstein said. "So, it only makes sense that when we serve our community that's involved in these kinds of activities that we provide a course where these kids are going to learn a lot of safety and a lot of control and proper handling of potentially dangerous items."
This story was created in collaboration with the Columbia Missourian and reporter Titus Wu.
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