The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The school board rejected NRA ‘blood money’ for a high school rifle team. Locals donated instead.

A school board in Stroudsburg, Pa., rejected a grant from the National Rifle Association for the school's rifle team on March 26. (Video: WNEP 16)

The 21 students on the rifle team at Stroudsburg High School in Stroudsburg, Pa., were using guns from the 1970s. They badly needed new ones, along with shooting jackets and ammunition, but lacked the funding to buy them. The deteriorating equipment was holding the team back in a sport they love.

“Rifle practice helps me calm down and de-stress,” rifle team member Isabelle Strauch said, according to the Pocono Record. “It’s a mental sport, like chess. We need new rifles to be more competitive.”

So when the opportunity arose for a $4,730 grant from the National Rifle Association, the team eagerly applied. But that was in December, before a gunman killed 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., high school, and before 2 million people took part in marches across the country to demand action against gun violence.

When it came time for the district to approve the rifle team’s grant from the NRA on Monday, the school board voted against it, 6-2, the Morning Call reported. One school board member called it “blood money.”

“The kids were very upset, and I was upset myself,” rifle team coach Mike Qendro told WNEP.

Local business owners from both sides of the political aisle were also outraged. “Our kids shouldn’t be put in the middle of a political debate,” Brian Winot, owner of Northeast Site Contractors in East Stroudsburg, told the Record. So they decided to step in and raise the money themselves.

By Wednesday night, Winot and a group of at least a dozen local business owners and residents raised a total of $6,750 for the rifle team, exceeding the NRA grant by more than $2,000. Stroudsburg Schools Superintendent Cosmas Curry accepted the check Wednesday, but donations continued to pour in. By early Thursday, a GoFundMe page for the rifle team had raised $10,185. Many of the donors are NRA members.

The NRA has substantially boosted its funding to schools in recent years, according to an Associated Press analysis of the NRA Foundation’s public tax records. About 500 schools received more than $7.3 million from 2010 through 2016, mostly through competitive grants for shooting sports such as rifle teams, Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, hunting safety courses and agriculture clubs.

Seven school districts in the eight counties in and around this region of Pennsylvania received such donations since 2011, totaling $62,897, according to the Morning Call.

The Stroudsburg case raises the question of how many other schools might reject such grants in light of the nationwide gun debate. Within weeks of the Parkland shooting, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart and several other corporations and retailers announced changes in the way they sell firearms or cut ties with the NRA. Florida’s Broward County school district said it would stop accepting NRA money. The teen charged in the Parkland shooting, Nikolas Cruz, had been on a school rifle team that received NRA funding.

The divisiveness of NRA funding was evident in this week’s school board meeting in Stroudsburg, in a county split during the 2016 presidential election, with 48.4 percent voting for Hillary Clinton and 48.1 percent voting for Donald Trump.

“Guys, I grew up shooting rifles, I’m in the Army, I have a rifle,” school board member Alex Reincke said, according to a video of the meeting captured by the Morning Call. “I love hunting and I love the rifle team … but that all being said, this is dirty money.”

“The NRA is a group that has transformed from a bunch of people who liked hunting in the ’50s to something that quite frankly is a hateful, divisive group that seeks nothing but to push guns on people,” he added.

But another school board member, Michael Mignosi, disputed the notion that accepting the grant would send a political message. “This is not an approval or disapproval of the NRA,” he said, according to the Morning Call.

“They are in great need of funding. They went out and secured this. There’s no strings attached,” Mignosi later told ABC affiliate WNEP. “This is a grant which is very common in the shooting organizations, and they felt they’d rather make a political statement.”

Students who spoke at the school board meeting described the riflery team as a formative, challenging sport that has taught them to respect all weapons.

“I’ve been hunting since age 13 with my dad, who taught me the seriousness of weapons and guns,” Strauch said, according to the Pocono Record. “I learned safety is always important.”

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, she said, “opened my eyes.”

“I agree with and want more gun control,” she said. “However, semi-automatic rifles kill people. Our competition rifles don’t kill people.”

The donations from local business owners will go toward new single-shot .22 rifles, as well as shooting coats and ammunition, Qendro, the rifle team coach, told the Record.

Many local residents posted messages on the GoFundMe account, saying they felt the debate over the grant should not have been about politics.

“I oppose the NRA and assault rifles, but I support the rifle team,” one post, written by Valerie Prosser, stated.

“Our daughter competed with the North Pocono Rifle Team and recalls it as one of the best, most formative experiences of her high school years,” another post read. “Hoping that students at Stroudsburg will continue to have that opportunity!!”

Tim Primrose, one of the local business owners who donated to the team, said he graduated from Stroudsburg in the 1990s.

“I remember they were using 1970 guns then, and they had issues then,” Primrose told the Pocono Record. “They were old guns, and I was surprised to hear they didn’t have the equipment they needed.”

“It wouldn’t be acceptable if the football team was using helmets from the 1970s,” Winot, one of the other business owners, told WNEP. “So as a local community, we didn’t feel it was acceptable for the rifle team to.”

More from Morning Mix:

North Korea’s swankiest ride: Kim Jong Un’s tricked-out armored family train

Eric Trump: ‘Jeb! I love everything about my father.’