By Alice Herman and Candace Mettle
In the wake of the most deadly mass-shooting in U.S. history, community members of both the City of Grinnell and the College mourned the deaths of 59 concertgoers in Las Vegas, Nevada. Concerned residents representing the College and the City have encouraged a frank community discussion on gun rights and violence. Discussions are particularly relevant locally as Pete Brownell, current president of the NRA and CEO of the gun retailer Brownells, acts as a major benefactor of College and community programs and organizations.
The NRA has attracted controversy in light of the country’s ongoing and polarizing gun control debate. Over the summer, the association received criticism after putting out a commercial that denounced the political left as “violent” and “lying.” More recently, the NRA backed the Sportsman’s Heritage and Recreation and Enhancement Act (SHARE), a bill that includes a provision to ease restrictions on the purchase of gun silencers. The question of silencers has also been an object of debate following the deadly shooting in Las Vegas last week.
The NRA’s influence in legislation began in the 1970s when they created their own political action committee (PAC) to fund individual legislators and has increased since. The organization defends a literal interpretation of the Second Amendment and has worked to resist gun control efforts following incidents such as the Las Vegas, Sandy Hook and Aurora shootings. District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the first Supreme Court case to decide if the Second Amendment allows an individual to keep and bear arms for self-defense, and McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), which addressed the state’s rights regarding the right to bear arms, have also galvanized the NRA.
Brownell, who sat on the NRA’s board of directors and assumed the position of NRA president in May 2017, enjoys the status of a “Golden Ring of Freedom” member, a privilege reserved for donors contributing at least one million dollars to the association.
Among other acts of local philanthropy, Brownell has funded libraries, the Grinnell Area Arts Council and a child care center. Brownell has not donated exclusively to organizations run by Grinnell community members, however. Adam Laug, Director of Development at the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, wrote in an email to The S&B that “[m]ost recently, the Redmond/Brownell family has supported the Ignite program.” Pete Brownell also sat on the board of judges for “Pioneer Weekend,” a student innovation competition.
According to Laug, “[t]he College does not share specific gift amounts to protect donors’ privacy and confidentiality unless the donor has approved a gift announcement from the College,” so the size of Brownell family donations is unclear.
The College, additionally, has the right to deny gift donations with the guidance of the Gift Acceptance Policy. As their policy states, the College can only accept gifts that can benefit the college and “are in the philanthropic interest of the donor.”
An unsubstantiated report available on the NRA’s website emphasizes Brownell’s close relationship with the College, stating that “Pete volunteered to lecture on Second Amendment issues [at Grinnell College] and, in time, managed to start a shooting club on campus.” The report goes on to describe faculty members on the shooting range: “the majority of the faculty left Brownell’s property giddy with excitement over having actually fired a real handgun. Today these same educators are regulars at the range. The newly committed gun owners have been known to take their guns with them when they return to New York for civic events.”
The S&B reached out to President Raynard Kington for a statement on the matter of Brownell donations, but he was not available for comment.
The Rev. Wendy Abrahamson of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Grinnell, and a registered lobbyist for the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, has reached out to Brownell for a meeting regarding Brownell’s position at the NRA. Abrahamson, along with Cameron Barr, pastor of United Church of Christ, hope to speak with Brownell to determine his position on gun violence and to build a relationship that can lead to heightened gun safety.
“I think as president [of the NRA], he’s in a unique position to speak up,” Abrahamson said. “If he’s president and doesn’t agree with where the organization is, there’s a dissonance there. … The NRA seems to be putting [gun regulations] as all or nothing which is just not true — you can have sensible gun regulations and still let people have guns.”
Although Abrahamson and Barr contacted Brownell as religious leaders, Abrahamson noted that her concern about the NRA’s efforts to prevent gun safety legislation was not only a religious one. Her identities as an American, as an Iowan and as a person who has lost a family member to gun violence have informed her vocal stance on the issue. However, Abrahamson also admits that there are difficulties inherent in such activism, especially in a town in which the Brownells are so involved.
For instance, when she realized that an organizations of which she was a part accepted money from the Brownells, Abrahamson quietly gave up her position within in it, rather than advocating for the organization to divest, knowing that the organization depended on Brownell’s donations.
“[I]f you have enjoyed any of the things we like to enjoy here — and a lot of those things that we all talk about why Grinnell is so great — the Brownells have been a part of the financial support,” Abrahamson said. “So in terms of organizing, anyone who’s going to organize [has] to have some humility about it because you’ve received gifts from the Brownell family.”
Neither Brownell nor representatives from Brownells responded to The S&B’s requests for a statement on gun violence and regulation.