GREENVILLE -- Parents and students trickled into the Muhlenberg County High School gym on a hot Saturday night in September as the sounds of cheers and a referee's whistle carried from an athletic field nearby. Inside the "Home of the Mustangs," Friends of NRA was raffling off guns: semiautomatic rifles and handguns, guns with high-capacity magazines and pump-action shotguns.
In the past two years, the NRA Foundation's fundraising program had displayed actual guns along the wooden bleachers in the gym. This time organizers showed only pictures, bowing to objections from parents who pointed to a shooting at another western Kentucky high school last year that left two students dead and more than a dozen wounded.
"It's obscene that they have had guns inside our gym," said Shannon Myers, whose 16-year-old son attends band practice next to the gym where the event was held. "The more I looked into it, the more I realized they are having these events all over the place. Not just here in our little town but in little towns all over the country."
Pockets of resistance to Friends of NRA events are cropping up across the country as mass shootings become more frequent and more deadly. Although National Rifle Association officials say only a small fraction of those events are held in schools, opponents have pressured other venues to stop hosting the fundraisers. The events netted more than $33 million last year.
That money is the leading source of cash for the NRA Foundation, a charity that supports shooting sports. The events combine the efforts of what organizers say are 13,000 volunteers with the NRA's multimillion-dollar marketing machine. They are family-focused by design, helping to cultivate the next generation of gun owners and NRA members.
Friends of NRA boasts that its events feature the "latest and greatest" guns thanks to "amazing relationships with all the top firearms manufacturers," according to a
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promotional video. "You never know who may show up that night -- even Wayne LaPierre may come walking through the doors to greet attendees," the narrator says, referring to the chief executive of the NRA.
The foundation gives half the money it raises to shooting and archery teams, 4-H clubs, Scouting troops and other youth groups, the NRA says. It uses the other half for national firearms educational programs.
For years, Friends of NRA drew mostly positive publicity from local newspapers and TV stations. Coverage tended to promote upcoming fundraisers or the ceremonial presentation of checks to groups of Scouts or young trap shooters.
Then, on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 14 students and three staff members were killed by a gunman. Several teenage survivors from the heavily Democratic community quickly became nationally recognized advocates for gun control, headlining rallies and gaining large followings on social media.
The deadly shooting three weeks earlier at Marshall County High School in Benton -- 80 miles from Muhlenberg County -- drew far less media attention. But it galvanized a vocal minority in the conservative-leaning community.
At nearby Murray State University, about 100 people protested later that year when Oliver North, then the incoming NRA president, appeared at a Republican Party fundraiser. "Shame!" they shouted at those entering the auditorium, according to newspaper accounts. North received a standing ovation from an audience estimated at 300 people.
Among those at the protest was Heather Adams, whose son survived the shooting in Benton and is now a junior at Marshall County High.
"People ask, 'Were you surprised?' No, I was waiting for it," the gun-control activist told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. "I live in the middle of gun country."
Opposition to Friends of NRA has emerged in areas scarred by mass shootings and neighborhoods that have long favored gun control. The group's events in New York have drawn protests, and a handful of school districts from Florida to New Mexico have spurned the money raised by the group. Protests led a banquet hall in Connecticut to end its long tradition of hosting annual Friends of NRA fundraisers.
Gwen Clements, whose granddaughter participates in Army Junior ROTC at Muhlenberg County High School, said she remained upset about the Sept. 14 Friends of NRA fundraiser even though weapons were kept out of the gym this year. "They are selling guns on school property. Where we have active-shooter drills."
NRA officials say support for the organization remains strong and opposition to its events isolated. Most Friends of NRA fundraisers are held at banquet halls, fairgrounds and civic clubs.
"Only a small fraction of Friends of NRA events take place at schools, and such activities are conducted with the input, support and coordination of local officials," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.
Kentucky law makes it a felony to bring firearms on school property, but school boards are permitted to grant exceptions for "gun and knife shows," as was the case in Muhlenberg County. State Sen. C.B. Embry, a Republican who said he has attended Friends of NRA events at the high school for years, called the display of pictures of guns this year "a concession."
"It was kind of silly," he said as he left the event. "None of the weapons would have been loaded."
Friends of NRA says it held about 1,100 events last year and has raised $815 million for the foundation since it began in 1992.
In the past three years, as NRA spending outpaced revenue, millions of dollars flowed from the foundation to the NRA, audits show. The NRA received grants from the foundation for educational programs totaling $13.5 million in 2018 and $18.8 in 2017. The NRA also has been borrowing and paying off a series of $5 million loans from the foundation. The two entities share employees, office space and other resources, and the NRA nearly tripled the amount it sought in reimbursements from the foundation between 2017 and 2018, to $17.4 million, Bloomberg first reported. The NRA has said the increases reflect the foundation's growing need for professional staff and resources.
In recent months, amid public scrutiny of NRA spending, the Democratic attorneys general in New York and Washington, D.C., began investigations into whether the organization is complying with its tax-exempt status. LaPierre has been fending off accusations of lavish spending on clothing, travel and legal fees, as well as calls for his resignation. Representatives for LaPierre and several board members have denied wrongdoing.
In Washington state, the NRA Foundation is seeking to increase the total value of prizes at Friends of NRA events next year to $500,000, surpassing the state's annual limit of $300,000. The Washington State Gambling Commission in August postponed a decision on that request to give its staff time to review the foundation's spending.
NRA officials said that they follow standard accounting practices and that the financial statements are audited every year. They said the foundation has awarded nearly $400 million to school teams, Scouting troops and law enforcement groups since 1990.
NRA money flowed to board members tasked with financial oversight of the nonprofit.
Friends of NRA held fundraisers at Muhlenberg County High School uneventfully in 2017 and 2018. But Myers circulated a flier about this year's event among a group of like-minded parents. The debate heated up on Facebook, where Friends of NRA had posted photos of previous events, with semiautomatic rifles and Glock pistols lining the gym's bleachers.
In the end, the parents opposed to having guns in the school got their way. Carla Embry, spokeswoman for the Muhlenberg County schools, said the high school principal "chose to use more discretion this year by not allowing firearms at the banquet for the purpose of raffling."
The decision provided little comfort to Secret Holt, whose 15-year-old daughter was one of the two students fatally shot at the high school in nearby Marshall County. The suspect is a fellow student who authorities said had taken his stepfather's pistol.
"What if a gun they raffled off at the school ended up in the hands of one of their students and they committed a terrible act like what happened at Marshall?" she said after being contacted by The Post about the event. "I have hunters in my family and the Second Amendment is their right, but these fundraisers shouldn't be in schools. It's kind of a slap in the face."
That same night, in the southeastern corner of Oklahoma, more than 200 people packed the cafeteria of the Kiamichi Technology Center for the annual Friends of NRA banquet. They sat at long tables covered with NRA-labeled plastic tablecloths, surrounded by displays of handguns, rifles, knives and NRA memorabilia.
Darren DeLong, an NRA field representative, served as emcee for the evening. He raffled off dozens of firearms, including a rifle he called "the greatest redneck gun of all time," and later an AR 9mm pistol.
"I don't know if you watched the debate," DeLong said, apparently referring to a Democratic presidential debate earlier that week, "but that's the one they want to take from you. So if you don't have one, you better get you one."
Attendees, including about 20 young children, whistled and cheered. Everyone who bought a $20 admission ticket was automatically entered into a drawing for an FN semiautomatic pistol. (A freelance writer for The Post attended the event and won a pistol but did not accept it.)
A live auction later in the evening included a Colt handgun engraved with the signature of Oliver North, who was ousted in April as NRA president.
Keith Compton, who has helped organize the banquet for the past 20 years, chafed when asked about gun raffles in schools.
"If you pick up one of these guns and shoot someone with it, it's not the gun's fault, is it? You pulled the trigger," he said. "Everybody wants to blame the ARs. Anyone can cause just as much problems with a knife."
The AR-15 is the military-style rifle that has been used in a number of mass shootings, including the one in Parkland.
More than two dozen children attended the event, from toddlers bouncing on their parents' laps to students from nearby Broken Bow High School. In an interview, Principal Luke Hanks said far more students are able to participate in shooting sports because of Friends of NRA fundraisers.
"They're just raised in hunting and fishing, and some of them don't fit into other sports," he said. "This gives them a niche."
But in some communities, the NRA grants have become unwanted.
After the shooting in Florida, the Broward County School District returned two NRA grants totaling about $5,000 for the JROTC program in two other schools, officials said. The alleged gunman had been a cadet in the program at Stoneman Douglas.
Other public school districts -- in Denver; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania -- followed suit in the spring.
"I don't think we have any business, and it's against my moral conscience for any schools to be taking money from the NRA," said Santa Fe school board member Steven Carrillo, who has long backed restrictions on gun sales.
Hundreds of schools continue to accept the money, citing the need to supplement limited budgets. "Our support is generally welcomed," said Arulanandam, the NRA spokesman.
In 2017, about 123 individual schools, school districts or school clubs accepted nearly $1.4 million in NRA Foundation cash grants and equipment, according to a Post analysis of tax filings. That's about 5% of the $30 million the foundation gave out in grants that year.
In 2016, two years before the deadly attack in Marshall County, the school system there received about $5,300 in equipment for shooting programs. Superintendent Trent Lovett said he would accept the money again. "If it was to help one of my teams, absolutely," he said. "The NRA had absolutely nothing to do with the shooting of our students."
Lovett said that if asked, he would not permit Friends of NRA to host an event at one of his schools. "After what happened to us, they would probably hang me at the courthouse," he said.
The Washington Post's Andrea Canfield, Andrew Ba Tran and Alice Crites contributed to this report.