Business

Gun industry lobbying group has funded 100 college shooting clubs

The Harvard Shooting Team at the ACUI Collegiate Clay Target Championships in San Antonio last April.
Andrea Winters
The Harvard Shooting Team at the ACUI Collegiate Clay Target Championships in San Antonio last April.

When students set out to revive the century-old Harvard Shooting Club in 2009, they won a $10,000 grant from the gun industry’s lobbying group. Since then, 100 colleges have received at least $1 million from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, according to tax records and the organization.

The Newtown, Conn., nonprofit has a broad mission beyond helping young people hone their shooting skills. It actively lobbies against gun restrictions, stepping up its efforts most recently after the Orlando nightclub massacre.

In the past two weeks, the group has opposed several Senate proposals aimed at requiring stricter background checks and keeping suspected terrorists from buying guns.

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Yale University banned donations by the foundation and other business lobbying groups in 2013. Before that, its Pistol & Rifle Club and Skeet & Trap team had received $20,000 over two years from the foundation.

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Yale stopped accepting the funds, according to spokesman Thomas Conroy, because, “You don’t have to vet any organization you don’t have funding from.”

At some other schools, upstart shooting groups have been short-lived. Clubs at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and Tufts University in Medford that received grants are no longer active, the schools said.

The Trap and Skeet Club at Middlebury College in Vermont also is defunct, despite winning a $10,000 grant in 2013, college spokeswoman Sarah Ray said. Middlebury plans to return the remaining unused $1,450 to the foundation, she said.

Corporate money has been flowing into universities for years. Oil companies support energy research, and agriculture-chemical giants endow chairs at farming institutions. Medical schools across the country have grappled with the influence of pharmaceutical companies on doctors.

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Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said there are so many outside donors, it’s difficult to reach consensus on which are suitable and which are not.

“Gun lobbying certainly strikes a lot of people as problematic,’’ Nassirian said. By the same token, he noted, “Higher ed has raised money from governments that have horrific human rights records.”

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, with $34.4 million in assets, says its mission is to “promote, protect, and preserve hunting and the shooting sports.” Its headquarters are 6 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of a 2012 mass shooting in which a gunman killed 20 first-graders and kindergartners and six staff members.

Since 2009, schools from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Southern Arkansas University have received funds to start or maintain shooting clubs as part of the trade group’s “lifelong shooter retention” strategy.

Michael Bazinet, a spokesman for the foundation, said the group’s lobbying against stricter gun laws is unrelated to its campus grants. The foundation, he said in an e-mail, “is helping to meet demand for developing and expanding competitive shooting teams and club programs at colleges.”

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The foundation spent $3.1 million on taxable lobbying and political expenses for its fiscal year ended in March 2015, according to its latest available tax filing. It paid out $811,475 in grants for that year and $7.3 million in executive compensation and benefits.

The group is supported by 13,000 members, including gun companies, sellers, and individuals, but does not disclose their names. It is run by Stephen Sanetti, the former longtime chief executive of Sturm, Ruger & Co., one of the nation’s largest gun manufacturers, in Southport, Conn.

In a Web post on June 16, days after 49 people were killed at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in the worst mass shooting in modern US history, the foundation urged members to contact their lawmakers because “a number of antigun US senators will be proposing amendments that will have an adverse impact on your rights as a law-abiding American.”

On its site, the foundation touted June as National Safety Month and promotes the Twitter hashtag #GunVote.

Four measures introduced in the Senate failed last month, including one that the foundation said it supported, giving the FBI three days to investigate anyone on a terror watch list trying to buy a gun.

The foundation also urged members to oppose an alternative proposal brought by Republican Senator Susan M. Collins of Maine that would prohibit gun sales to anyone on watch lists, saying hers did not strike the “necessary and proper balance.”

Michael Hoffman, executive director of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University in Waltham, said schools need to think carefully before accepting money from any lobbying organization — and this one in particular.

“In this case of a gun lobbying group who wants to start gun clubs on campus and would fund universities to help in that effort,’’ Hoffman said, “it just sounds to me like a preposterous idea, given the situation that we’re in today, with so much gun violence taking place in educational institutions from elementary schools and secondary schools to universities.”

One area where most educators are aligned is in opposing new laws permitting concealed handguns on campus, such as those in Texas and Tennessee, according to Nassirian of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“If you poll college presidents and administrators, there’s almost unanimity against concealed carry,” Nassirian said. “There’s really no disagreement that that’s dangerous and does not foster a workable environment on college campuses.”

Bazinet said the foundation has “no position” on concealed handguns on campus.

At Harvard, the shooting club dates to 1883, and grew in popularity after World War I. At times its rivalry with Yale was, by some accounts, as intense as that in football. On its website, the Harvard club says its goal is to “Beat — nay, destroy — Yale. And then compete at Nationals.”

Over the years, the club shrank, and in 2003 became inactive when its leadership graduated, according to the Harvard Shooting Team website. Six years later, new students restarted the club with help from the foundation, whose funds help pay for ammunition, travel, and other costs. Today the group says it has about 60 people on its mailing list, and a dozen active members who practice shooting clay birds at the Minute Man Sportsman’s Club in Burlington and take part in competitions.

Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Harvard, said the shooting club does not practice or compete on campus, nor does the university allow members to store guns on campus.

He declined to comment on whether the university sets guidelines for the source of its various clubs’ funds.

Jess Clay, cocaptain of the Harvard club, said he sees the foundation’s support for college shooting teams as distinct from its political lobbying.

“I don’t see a problem with it,’’ Clay said. “We’re always on the lookout for funding. Shooting is an expensive sport.’’ His team has not pursued a grant from the foundation recently, he said.

Beth Healy can be reached at beth.healy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @HealyBeth.