A crab dinner was served. There was an auction with typical fundraiser items — wine, gift cards.
Guests also bid on an AR-15 rifle, the same type of gun used just three days earlier to kill 17 school children in Parkland, Florida. Guns have been raffled before at the event, but this time was different.
Some people were so uncomfortable about the gun that they left, after sharing their concerns with the organizers, who apologized on Monday for “this insensitivity to the youth and families affected by the horrific event in Florida and other mass shootings.”
“When we walked out, the flag was at half-mast in front of the community center and it was just so striking how tone-deaf the whole event was,” Allison Merrill told the Sacramento Bee the day after the event.
Every year, gun raffles across the United States raise money for schools, sports teams, fire departments, political committees and politicians. But in the aftermath of the school shooting on Valentine’s Day, the raffles are getting a hard, second look.
Missouri third-graders selling raffle tickets for an AR-15 to raise money for their traveling baseball team attracted national attention — and ire — last week.
Are they in bad taste? Should they be canceled? What, critics wonder, if the guns get into the wrong hands?
AR-15s can range in cost, starting at about $600. The National Rifle Association calls the lightweight, accurate, 7-pound gun of steel and plastic “the most popular rifle in America.”
The NRA estimates as many as 8 million are owned in America, a statistic that prompted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in a recent interview to say, “they’re here to stay. The genie’s out of the bottle.”
This week, boosters of McDonald High School in Anderson, Missouri, raffled off one to raise money for the school’s “Project Graduation” night of activities for seniors. The winner will receive it after they pass a required background check — standard, stated procedure for most rifle raffles.
But since the Valentine’s Day shooting, raffles of AR-15s have been called off in Michigan, Washington, Arkansas and New York, while others in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky and Nebraska, planned before the shooting, will go on.
In Batesville, Arkansas, the high school principal pulled the plug on a parent-run raffle of an AR-15 to raise money for a graduation event when he found out about it on Monday afternoon.
Principal David Campbell told ArkansasMatters.com the raffle was in poor taste given what happened in Florida. He asked the parents to call off the raffle and they did. He said the parents had good intentions, but wondered if they had fully thought out the implications.
“When I contacted the committee, they were super concerned,” he said.
School boosters in South Lyon, Michigan, also had planned to offer an AR-15 among the raffle prizes at a charity dinner in March for the high school football team. But the Wild Game Dinner, not associated with the school district or school, also has been canceled.
“The sensitivity of the issue coupled with the untimely tragedy has led to the decision,” said a statement on the team’s website. “At no point did the Booster club intend to offend those sensitive to the topic of firearms. The event was meant to generate funding for the football program by taking advantage of the vast amount of sportsmen in the area.”
In eastern Washington, the Stevens County Republican Central Committee announced this week it was removing an AR-15 from a March 24 auction.
“We stand by the 2nd Amendment, but we also recognized that in the current environment, publicizing a means to acquire a semi-automatic AR-15 has the potential to insert more separation into our political discourse,” the group said in a statement.
Similar concerns were raised in New York state, where newspaper columnist David McKay Wilson writes that “raffling off an AR-15 rifle and a .30-gauge shotgun seemed like a good idea in January when the Kent Volunteer Fire Department launched its 2018 fundraising drive.”
Sales of the $20 tickets were brisk, notes Wilson of the Journal News in Westchester County. But at an emotion-packed meeting Monday night, where some parents begged the department not to put more guns into the community and expressed concern that an unstable person would win the raffle, the fire district’s board of commissioners asked the department to cancel the raffle.
“The raffling of firearms does not show good judgment or sensitivity to the community we serve,” said chairman Doug Casey.
The department refused to cancel the raffle.
“I believe in the Second Amendment, so you are asking us to cancel this raffle, based on the fact that you are against it,” the department’s president, Gladys Bolbrock, said, according to Wilson’s report.
“What about those of us that are for it? Because we would look like cowards because we aren’t standing up for amendments we believe in.”
Things got heated when fire chief Justin Bryne said the department needed the money to provide breakfasts, T-shirts and drinks at training sessions, Wilson reported.
“Don’t come down here and tell us we are doing it wrong,” Bryne said. “It makes you all look bad. I see no reason to stop this raffle.”
But the next day the department announced that instead of guns, raffle winners would receive gift certificates to a local gun shop that would cover the cost of the rifles, a compromise one commissioner said was “not great, but it’s better.”
In other towns, rifle raffle organizers are sticking to their guns, some because their plans were underway long before the Parkland massacre.
A youth baseball team in Webb City, Mo., for instance, has been selling tickets for an AR-15 raffle for two weeks. Ticket sales are going well and no one has raised any concerns, said the team’s coach, who said critics of the gun are misguided and don’t understand how practical the rifle is for, say, young children just getting into hunting.
“The AR-15 is a great choice because it’s a smaller caliber, it’s semi-automatic which means it’s going to have less recoil,” Kory Johnson, coach of the Webb City Makos, told KOAM in Pittsburg, Kan. “Also a lot of women aren’t big enough to feel comfortable shooting a bigger rifle.”
In Nebraska, the trap shooting club at Lincoln Northeast high school had sold all its AR-15 raffle tickets before school officials asked members last week to remove social media references to it.
The club is not school-sponsored, but high school and middle school students from the district belong, according to the Lincoln Journal Star. The school has no control over the club’s fundraisers.
“I think it’s raised some anxiety,” Northeast principal Kurt Glathar told the newspaper. “It’s not just that our kids here at our school are doing a raffle. There’s heightened anxiety everywhere.”
He said he had received phone calls from a few concerned parents.
The raffles are held every year, said the president of the parent-run youth club, Jeff Woodward.
“The tickets were made in January and the majority were sold before February,” he told the Journal Star. “At that point it was so late to do anything about it.”
Though the club didn’t advertise the raffle, some parents, who sold most the tickets, promoted it on social media, Woodward said. They’ve been asked to remove those references.
Glathar made it clear he has no problem with the club itself, which he called a positive organization that promotes gun safety.
The club doesn’t use AR-15s, according to Woodward, who said the rifles are used by many people for target shooting or hunting small animals such as prairie dogs or raccoons. “It’s one of the most popular target guns in the world,” he said.
An AR-15 will be raffled Saturday night at a meeting in Pennsylvania where an official from the gun-rights group, Gun Owners of America, will speak — and gun control advocates and state Democratic party activists plan to be there to protest.
The event, at a hotel in Matamoras, Penn., is billed as a “President Trump Thank You Dinner,” according to the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y.
Advertisements for the sold-out event show a picture of a semi-automatic rifle laying on top of an American flag with the words, “Protect Yourself, Protect Your Neighbor!”
The Biblical passage, Rev 3:11, is cited: “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.”
At the planned vigil outside the hotel, the names of the students and staff murdered in Parkland will be read.