Nikolas Cruz Was a Member of School's NRA-Supported Rifle Team

After 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Feb. 14, people are taking a closer look at the school's JROTC program where he received training and practice with firearms, which is funded in part by the NRA.

Cruz was wearing his shirt from the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program when he committed his string of crimes earlier this week. Some of the students who had been in the program with him spoke to the Associated Press, revealing Cruz was a member of highly exclusive varsity marksmanship team. The tight-knit team trained together often and traveled to other area schools for competitions.

"He was a very good shot," recalled 20-year-old Aaron Diener. Diener had given Cruz rides to shooting competitions when they were part of the same four-member team in 2016.

"He had an AR-15 he talked about, and pistols he had shot... He would tell us, 'Oh, it was so fun to shoot this rifle' or 'It was so fun to shoot that.' It seemed almost therapeutic to him, the way he spoke about it."

Another former member of that team, 20-year-old Kyle Ramos, remembered Cruz as a slightly frightening figure.

"He told me he would attack little animals with pellet guns and stuff, and I was a little weirded out by that," Ramos said. "Like squirrels and lizards and stuff."

The marksmanship team practiced shooting pellet guns and air rifles at targets as small as coins, on an indoor firing range. They had a Kevlar curtain hanging behind the targets for protection, which one of the current JROTC members used to hide students during the shooting.

Much of that equipment is provided or paid for by the NRA Foundation. The Stoneman Douglas High JROTC program received a total of $10,827 worth of assistance from the foundation in 2016, when Cruz was in the program. The JROTC even publicly thanked the NRA on their Twitter feed.

Cruz's former classmates remember that he would sometimes miss target practice for detention. Having his shooting privileges taken away was a harsh punishment for him. Diener recalled a specific incident when Aaron Feis, one of the school's security staff and an assistant football coach, came to take Cruz out of JROTC class for some kind of disciplinary trouble.

Feis was among those killed on Wednesday, when he reportedly stepped in front of gunfire to shield his students.

Arsu Noorali, who participated in the JROTC program and marksmanship training with Cruz, told the Associated Press that she hopes the program won't get a bad name just because of Cruz's crimes.

"The program is about discipline, and family and love," the 19-year-old said. "You hang out with these people, getting up at 4 a.m., and going to competitions, and they become your family."

Noorali said that she remembers having a conversation with Cruz's mother about his behavioral problems once.

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"She told me, 'Look, he's not the best of kids, I really hope this program can change him,'" she said. "Because it does teach you a lot of discipline. It becomes fun after a while."