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Florida Gunman Nikolas Cruz Knew How to Use a Gun, Thanks to the NRA and the U.S. Army

Web ExclusiveFebruary 23, 2018
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Extended web-only discussion with Pat Elder, the director of the National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy, a group that confronts militarism in the schools. He is the author of “Military Recruiting in the United States.” The gunman who fired on students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a 19-year-old white former student named Nikolas Cruz, was a member of the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program, known as JROTC. Cruz also took part in a four-person JROTC marksmanship team at the school which had received $10,000 in funding from the NRA. “[The NRA] realize that if they can start linking the children with the guns at age 13 in the high schools, it’s a win-win proposition for them and for the sellers of weaponry,” says Elder.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, with Part 2 of our discussion about JROTC and the mass shooting in Florida. While last week’s Florida school shooting has sparked a national debate over guns and the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association, much less attention has been paid to another aspect of the shooting. The Florida gunman, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, was a member of the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program. He was wearing his JROTC shirt when he carried out the massacre, in an attempt to blend in with other students. Cruz was also part of a four-person JROTC marksmanship team at the school which had received $10,000 in funding from the NRA.

We continue our conversation with Pat Elder, the director of the National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy, a group that confronts militarism in the schools. He’s author of Military Recruiting in the United States.

So, first of all, Pat, tell us how JROTC works in the schools. For example, how many kids at Marjory Stoneham Douglas school were in JROTC? What is the average in the United States?

PAT ELDER: I tried to find that information out, Amy, but I know that all schools that hold—that have JROTC programs have to have a minimum of 100 students. And if they cannot maintain 100 students for two years in a row, then the program has to be discontinued.

Now, that brings up an interesting point having to do with a lobbying campaign that was directed by the JROTC Cadet Command, that was directed not at the federal government, not at state legislatures, but instead at individual schools and state school boards of education and superintendents. For instance, in Florida, which is arguably the most friendly state in terms of the militarization of the schools, Florida statutes now allow a student who takes four years of JROTC to substitute biology, physical science, physical education and art for this straight-jacketed military indoctrination program. It is absolutely outrageous.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. Repeat that.

PAT ELDER: I’m always asked to repeat that. In Florida, it is part of the statute that a child who takes four years of a JROTC program no longer has to take biology, physical science, physical education and art. Those four credits are used—are satisfied by taking the JROTC program.

See, after the No Child Left Behind Act, Amy, a lot of the school systems across the country became a lot more stringent as far as the kinds of credits and the number of credit hours students had to take, and that squeezed out the JROTC program. So the JROTC program has managed, in many jurisdictions, to be able to substitute for physical education and for American government and civics. Florida goes further.

And it must be noted at this juncture that in Florida all teachers hired must have B.A. degrees and must satisfy stringent teacher certification guidelines. They also must have master’s degrees within a few years. The JROTC instructors for the Army need not have a college degree. Where are the unions? Where are the unions on this?

AMY GOODMAN: Three of the children, three of the high school students killed by Cruz, were, like him, in JROTC. I want to turn to Jillian Davis, who said she was in JROTC with the Florida shooting gunman, Nikolas Cruz, in ninth grade.

JILLIAN DAVIS: Not the most normal or sane kid in JROTC. He definitely had a—just something a little off about him. But everyone in the program was just a little quirky, but he was a little extra quirky. And I only remember vaguely of how quirky he was. But it was just, more or less, that he was aggressive and quiet and shy about when—


JILLIAN DAVIS: When he got aggressive, it was not like him. It was not his character.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, really? Almost like he had a—

JILLIAN DAVIS: A different personality.


JILLIAN DAVIS: Because he was very quiet.

AMY GOODMAN: The Army has awarded the Medal of Heroism to three JROTC cadets who died in the Parkland, Florida, shooting: 15-year-old Peter Wang and two 14-year-old freshmen, Martin Duque and Alaina Petty. Wang reportedly died while holding a door open to help other classmates escape. Pat Elder, if you can talk about the students who join JROTC?

PAT ELDER: OK. Thank you Amy. Well, first, it’s a horrible tragedy, and I’m deeply saddened by this. I’ve given a great deal of my time in my life to attempting to take the guns out of these children’s hands. Now, it reminds me of a book written by Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman. It’s called Killology. And he documents the Paducah, Kentucky, shooting in the school’s library. Apparently there were eight kids in a prayer circle, and Michael Carneal came into the library, and he had a handgun with eight rounds, and he shot each child in the head one time. And Grossman refers to it as an “amazing accomplishment.”

And I bring that up because—because the Army uses video games—there’s an America’s Army video game—in order to recruit children. It is one of the most popular games in America today, and it’s a free download. These are first-person shooter games. And I believe deeply that it is the Army’s game to put young fingers around as many triggers, whether they be virtual or real, as possible. So, again, we have thousands of 13-year-olds in high schools across America who are given lethal weapons to shoot in their high schools. And if they don’t shoot in their high school, then they shoot in local commercial shooting ranges that are full of lead dust and that are also run by the Civilian Marksmanship Program and the National Rifle Association. It is a program that must be stopped.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to talk more about this, and we discuss this in Part 1, the relationship between the NRA and these marksmanship programs, that are a subset of JROTC, right? I mean, you have Nikolas Cruz, who was one of a four-member team of this marksmanship program. One of the other students said he was a very good shot.

PAT ELDER: Pretty horrible. Well, I think more attention needs to be given to the NRA’s proxy in all of this, and that’s the Civilian Marksmanship Program, or CMP. Now, the CMP is located in Anniston, Alabama. Unlike other countries around the world that prudently destroy their retired military weapons, the Civilian Marksmanship Program recycles them to the American public. So what the Army does is the Army gives, as gifts, to the Civilian Marksmanship Program outdated rifles and pistols now, and those are sold. So, the Civilian Marksmanship Program has assets of $160 million. It’s a private entity. And it is chartered by Congress to sell recycled or Army weapons to the American public at discounted rates.

That organization, the Civilian Marksmanship Program, regulates the shooting programs in the schools. They’re the ones that have to set up the regulations regarding the firing of the weapons, the safety procedures and the issue regarding the lead. The Civilian Marksmanship Program downplays the lead and follows suit of the NRA in claiming that that doesn’t really hurt you and that there is no problem with the lead on the floors and the lead in the air.

So, it’s the Civilian Marksmanship Program that is the proxy for the National Rifle Association. And more attention needs to be paid on the Civilian Marksmanship Program. If you go to that website, you can go to club tracker, and you can download from club tracker all of the JROTC programs with marksmanship programs throughout the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk more about the lead.

PAT ELDER: Well, thanks, Amy, because it’s been my focus. I really think that this issue should be resonating. Well, when someone shoots a lead pellet through a rifle, it scrapes out all of the lead particulate matter that went before. And so, that lead, these minute particles are blown into the air. And, of course, the ventilation systems in the high schools aren’t set up to take care of that air. And so it depends on which way the ventilation system is blowing. In some cases, it is blowing into the faces of the children. The lead accumulates at the muzzle end of the gun, on the floor, and the lead also accumulates at the target backstop.

And the Civilian Marksmanship Program has published very, very stringent guidelines, that are largely ignored in schools across the country. In fact, there are photos, published on our website, from Flint, Michigan, that actually show children walking from the shooting line to the target. And I have several videos, too, that show that, just from from YouTube—it doesn’t take much to download these things—that clearly show high school children violating the strenuous regulations. And when they walk across the gym floor or across the cafeteria floor, they put—they track the lead on their shoes, on their hands, on their feet, on their clothes, through the rest of the building. And we have studies, by both Swedish and German academic groups, that show a clear linkage between shooting only lead pellets and elevated blood lead levels.

Meanwhile, the Civilian Marksmanship Program tells us that it’s fine and that all you have to do is make sure the children don’t eat at the same time and they wash their hands. Meanwhile, NIOSH tells us that washing your hands is not enough in order to clean the lead residue. The Civilian Marksmanship Program also tells schools to use trisodium phosphate in order to clean the gym floors and the cafeteria floors after each shooting. This is simply not being done. And it should be mentioned, too, that TSP is a carcinogen and is extremely dangerous to the environment.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you can say again, Pat, who funds CMP, the Civilian Marksmanship Program? And then, with all of this—JROTC, CMP, the NRA’s involvement—who calls the shots, so to speak, in the school?

PAT ELDER: Got it.

AMY GOODMAN: What role does the principal play?

PAT ELDER: OK, thank you for that question. The Civilian Marksmanship Program’s history is really interesting, Amy. It goes all the way back to 1903. There are memos put out by the Army before that time period that was—it showed the Army was extremely alarmed, because they assumed that American young men who had fought in the Spanish American War would be better marksmen. And so, Congress ordered the establishment of the Civilian Marksmanship Program to train hundreds of thousands of children in firing weaponry, so that, in the case of another war, Americans would be better trained to shoot. Pretty horrible.

In 1996, there’s congressional testimony by Paul Simon and Frank Lautenberg, two great heroes, who called the CMP a “boondoggle” and “a gift to the NRA.” That was the year that the CMP no longer was an arm of Congress. It no longer was a public entity, and instead became a private entity. And as such, it has managed to bankroll $160 million in privately traded securities by selling discarded Army weapons.

Now, to the next part of your question, the individual schools are run by principals. Principals in the schools are ultimately in charge of what takes place. They have amazing—they have an amazing rein and amazing freedom in their schools. But the program itself is run by the individual branch of the military. So, if you have a Marine Corps program, then you have four different Marine Corps textbooks, for freshmen, sophomore, juniors and seniors. It’s all online. And the children are taught history from a Marine Corps perspective. And there are states now that allow this type of curriculum to substitute for the standard curriculum.

So, to answer your question, as far as the lead in the schools, the Civilian Marksmanship regulates it. The individual Army instructor is the person nominally in charge, although it’s a question, Amy: Do we really have an absolute military takeover of the schools? You know, so the responsibility is somehow shared. But legally, it’s the principal who’s in charge of the schools. They simply wash their hands.

It’s the same thing with military testing. We have 700,000 children across the country in 14,000 schools that take this ASVAB test, and all of the information is given to military recruiters—four hours of testing, Social Security numbers—in violation of state laws and federal laws, as well as demographic information. And it is a military test that’s given. And to make the point as quickly as possible, the principals allow this information to go to the military, violating privacy rights. And the military collects the information directly from the children. The state of Maryland and the state of New Hampshire have laws, and those laws specifically say that the military cannot take that information without parental consent. We have more than a thousand schools, Amy, that require students to take the military’s enlistment test, and all of the information is given to mom and dad—given to the recruiters without mom and dad knowing about it. And that violates FERPA, which is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how can it go on, if it violates a law of the United States?

PAT ELDER: How can anything go on that violates the laws of the United States? How can the Trump administration go on without violating the laws of the United States? It, too, violates the laws of the United States. I can tell you, I’ve been banging my head up against the mainstream for 15 years on this issue.

And we have had some traction in the state of Maryland and in the state of New Hampshire. And I also should mention the state of Hawaii. We went to the school officials, and we went to legislators, and we said, “Hey, you have a law in your state that says you can’t coerce a child to sign their Social Security number. You can’t coerce a child to give up demographic information or student records, without parental consent. Military marches into your cafeteria and tests these children. What do you think of that?” And legislators in those three states agreed with us and passed legislation. We still have 47 states to go.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the record of Nikolas Cruz and how he can be actually given a gun at school, even though you’re not allowed to take in a gun to that school. More and more evidence has emerged showing that the Florida school gunman Nikolas Cruz shared a common trait with many other men who have carried out mass shootings: He had a record of abusing and threatening women. One student told The New York Times that Cruz was abusive towards his ex-girlfriend. Another student told The New York Times he had been close friends with Cruz but cut him off after he started going after and threatening a female friend of his. And The New York Times also quoted someone saying that he went after a high school student to the point of stalking her.

You put that together with the reports that over the last years the police went to Cruz’s home something like 39 times to deal with issues of domestic violence and other issues. You had the neighbor showing video of Cruz waving a gun in his backyard. I mean, clearly, the school—you have all the kids, like Emma González, who has become so well known for an impassioned speech for gun control, saying, “We knew from way back.” And she said, “Don’t tell us we should have told people. We did tell people about Cruz.” And she said, “If you were going to ask, you know, who the mass shooter was, we wouldn’t be surprised,” she said.

But what about this, when it comes to Nikolas Cruz being a member of not only JROTC but also the marksmanship team at the school, being taught to be a better shot?

PAT ELDER: Right. Well, Amy, we need to back up a little bit to get a clearer picture of the United States Military Entrance Processing Command. That’s the government entity behind these abominations. You need to know that 40 percent of all new recruits don’t complete their first term. I have to repeat that: 40 percent of new recruits don’t complete their first term. And just between the period from 2008 to 2014, we had 20,000 people—20,000 soldiers went AWOL. You know, the military hardly tracks them down. And when they do, these soldiers receive a slap on the wrist. That’s because it’s a lot easier to go to the broken urban centers and to the high schools in the Rust Belt and hang with kids in the cafeteria and chill with kids in the parking lot, to try to get them to join. And so, my response here is that we have thousands and thousands of children that are scooped up. It’s not a volunteer force, Amy. It’s a recruited force. And it’s time people understood how insidious it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of the state of Florida and how prominent it is in the whole JROTC program?

PAT ELDER: I can. I can tell you that, as I’ve mentioned before, as far as the curriculum is concerned, it is extremely popular. It’s really difficult, Amy, getting the statistics on the JROTC program. Now, I have, for the last 10 years, requested FOIA information, and received it, on military testing. We don’t have that information on the JROTC program. So, I don’t have it. I have—it must be requested, and it’s a lengthy process to begin to get that information.

We have large numbers. We know that there are about 3,300 schools across the country, so we can extrapolate that to figure out how many there might be in Florida. We have data on the Army, but we don’t have the data on the other three branches. But Florida is notoriously friendly to the military. To give you a sample, we have seven urban schools in Miami, the city, and the children in those schools were required to sit for the military’s enlistment test. All of those schools had minority populations exceeding 95 percent. That’s another thing here. There’s a racial component to this, to the military testing aspect of it. But there are testing programs. Let’s say a school wants to help children prepare for the SAT or the ACT tests. The military has an answer for that. It’s called March 2 Success. The military begins its recruiting programs in Florida and elsewhere with a Lego building contest, for—starting in the third grade. So, there are, again, several dozen military programs, operating in virtually every Florida school and every school across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain the racial component a little more, Pat.

PAT ELDER: Sure. Well, eight years ago, I co-wrote legislation in the state of Maryland, and I went to the NAACP director, Elbridge James. And Elbrige is a good guy. And so, he said, yeah—you know, I asked him, “Could you testify in Maryland regarding the military testing?” And he said, “Well, let me see the database there.” And, you know, I gave him a spreadsheet with 150 schools on it, the names of the schools. And he looked at it for about 30 seconds, Amy, and he said, “I’ll testify.” I said, “That was pretty quick, Elbridge.” And he explained that he didn’t see Walt Whitman in Potomac. He didn’t see Churchill in Bethesda. He didn’t see the wealthy white schools represented on that list. And of course not. You know, they’re going to Brown. They’re going to Cornell. They’re not going to the Army. They’re not enlisting. If they go into the Army, they go as officers. So, there is a racial component to military testing, as there is—it’s not just a racial thing, of course. It’s an economic thing.

So, we can see very clearly, with the data that we have on military testing. We just received the data from the military last week. The Trump administration had dragged its feet. So, we have the new data, and I’ll have that on our website,, within a couple days. It’s very telling. You can pull up your own state and see the numbers of kids that are tested by the military. And you can call your principal and ask him how it is that he says, on the database—the children are not required to take the test—180 children take it. And you can ask them, “How in the world do you voluntarily get 180 kids, that are seniors, to go to the cafeteria to take a four-hour military test?”

AMY GOODMAN: Pat, how did you get so interested in this? What’s your background?

PAT ELDER: Well, when I was 16, the United States entered Cambodia, and I went down to the White House, and I was asked to move from the center front of Lafayette Park, and I did not, and I was arrested. And that was the beginning of my activism. I just could not sit quietly. And I’ve been an activist ever since. In the early, gosh, '01, I organized demonstrations in Washington with both United for Peace and Justice and the DC Anti-War Network, which I founded. And, you know, I got to the point, in about 2004, 2005, that we could—we could put 300,000 or 400,000 people in the street, Amy. It's really heady stuff. But it didn’t change the Bush administration’s policies.

And I met up with Rick Jahnkow. He’s with Project YANO in San Diego. And San Diego is pretty much a military town. That guy and that group managed to take all of the guns out of the JROTC program in the city of San Diego. So San Diego has no marksmanship programs. That’s quite an accomplishment. Project YANO is an amazing organization, and it is a go-to place for learning about this issue, as well as NNOMY, which is the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth, and my website, our website,

So, for me, it was a pragmatic thing. I realized that any revolution of love, of compassion, of consideration, has to course through the schools, Amy. It must. And so we need to look at that third grade program operated by the military, and we need to look at the Young Marines program, that has children as young as third grade, and we need to combat it. We need to confront it. We need to out it, because this is part of the revolution. It’s going to take a generation of time.

AMY GOODMAN: And with Trump’s massive attempt to put a massive amount of resources into the military—and it’s something we have never seen before, as he tries to expand the military budget—how will that affect the programs you’re talking about in the schools?

PAT ELDER: Well, it’s a nightmare, Amy. Right now, I think the Recruiting Command is still about 8,000 soldiers short. It’s not something you see on CNN, you know. It’s not something you come across on MSNBC. It is—they’re having a heck of a problem.

And, you know, I worked extensively with Child Soldiers International in London, and I also worked with the folks in Geneva regarding the optional protocol of children in armed conflict. And they actually took a couple paragraphs that I drafted, and inserted it into their response to the Obama administration, and so now it’s part of the public record. Apparently, the folks in Geneva felt that that military testing and the JROTC program both violate this protocol. They violate the protocol because Section 3 of the optional protocol of children in armed conflict specifically says that recruiting children under the age of 18 must be done so with absolute full parental consent. It is not, in the United States of America. And the Obama administration, under Secretary Clinton, claimed that no children are required to take a military test and that the JROTC program does not force children or attempt to recruit children without parental consent.

AMY GOODMAN: The $10,000 you believe went to the Parkland high school was in the form of equipment?

PAT ELDER: That’s correct. Typically, you’ll have—schools will contact the NRA, and the NRA has a very robust program for giving grants out. It’s kind of like the Joe Cool Camel cigarette advertisements that targeted youth. It’s the same type of approach. They realize that if they can start putting—linking the children with the guns at age 13 in the high schools, it’s a win-win proposition for them and for the sellers of weaponry. And so, you know, you see that it’s an insidious practice, and it seems like, for the short run, anyway, until more people come to grips with the idea that wars start in high school cafeterias, wars start in high school parking lots, where recruiters are allowed to chill with 13-year-olds.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of a kid like Nikolas Cruz, who clearly had a history of harassment, abuse and violence against others, being able to get a gun and learn to be a marksman in school?

PAT ELDER: Well, it’s worse than that. The United States Army put a lethal weapon into the child’s hand when he was in the ninth grade, as it does with thousands of others across the country. Now, he might have been an extreme case, but there are many psychologically unstable youth at 17 and 18 who manage to join the military. And parents are often willing to allow their children to join at 17. Ten percent of the recruited force in the United States of America is 17. That’s tops in the OECD, throughout Europe and the developed world. So, it’s a horrendous practice.

But getting back to Nikolas Cruz, would he have made a good soldier? Perhaps. Perhaps if he had joined, and perhaps if he had been in the ranks and been trained by the Marines or the Army, he might have made an excellent soldier, in their estimation.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know specifically about Nikolas Cruz’s case and his participation in JROTC and CMP and the marksmanship program at the Parkland high school?

PAT ELDER: No, I don’t. You know, I don’t know anything any more than anyone else, just gathered from various sources, Amy. I know the type.

And I can tell you, too, that I have been called by several hundred mothers across the country. It’s always the mothers, Amy, very rarely the fathers. And they’ll call me. They find me. And they’ll say, “My child is playing one-on-one basketball with a recruiter. And he is dyslexic, and he’s ADHD, and he has an anxiety disorder. This can’t happen, Pat. What can we do about it?” And I say, “Well, you can talk to your principal. You can talk to your child. But once your child’s 18 and they sign, there’s nothing mom can do about it.” And so, oftentimes I will have these extended conversations, these extended email chains, with hundreds of mothers, literally, who are just exasperated because they see their children going off to war, children that they know won’t last. And so it gets back to my earlier statement of fact that 40 percent of new recruits don’t make it past their first year.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does the U.S. compare in this kind of program for kids, this military program, to other countries?

PAT ELDER: Well, I mean, no one—to my knowledge, the Europeans don’t allow recruiters into the schools. You know, they shake their heads. They can’t believe it. They see us as some sort of deranged Wild West. We are. So, we are alone among the countries in the world. And I think if you look, too, at Congress’s insistence that we recycle, that we resell used Army weapons, including M1911—the M1911 was the side arm during Vietnam. It’s a semiautomatic pistol. And so, the policy of the United States government is that rather than destroy these automatic—semiautomatic pistols, it would be better to sell them at discounted rates to the American public. That’s the role of Congress with the Civilian Marksmanship Program. That’s how I answer that.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many schools have said no? I mean, and then go back in time to the Vietnam War, the activism around kicking ROTC out of the schools. And what does that look like today?

PAT ELDER: It’s sad. I mean, there’s very, very little activism. There’s very little resistance. Largely, children are docile. And for the most part, children that are in the high schools wearing these JROTC uniforms are accorded great respect by other students. They wear the uniform of the armed forces, and children are conditioned to salute them and to respect them, because, after all, we support our troops, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Wang, the student who apparently was trying to help other students, was wearing a full uniform when he was gunned down.

PAT ELDER: I understand the Army is giving him full honors. So this is another example of the militarization of youth. They will treat him as a full-fledged soldier at his burial. It’s horrendous. I’m saddened. These are lambs. But the program should be immediately discontinued, and especially the marksmanship program.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Pat Elder, we want to thank you for being with us, director of the National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy, an organization that confronts militarism in the schools, author of Military Recruiting in the United States. We’ll link to the piece that you just wrote, ”JROTC, Military Indoctrination and the Training of Mass Killers.”

This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us. If you’d like to go to Part 1 of our discussion with Pat Elder, you can go to

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