CONCORD, N.H. – Police chiefs in New Hampshire wanted more money for their youth training program. A youth hockey team in North Dakota needed more ice time.
Both saw giving away guns as the answer.
From car dealerships to political parties to hockey teams to yes, even police chiefs, gun giveaways are an attractive way to make money or draw in customers. But in the wake of the deadly shooting rampage in a Connecticut elementary school, such raffles are drawing criticism as the ease of obtaining firearms fuels gun-control debates nationwide.
The New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police is raffling off a gun every day in May, including a Ruger AR-15-style rifle with 30-round magazine similar to the one used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 20 children and six educators in December. The players in West Fargo’s Youth Hockey Association will raffle off 200 guns and an all-terrain vehicle next month. Up for grabs are shotguns, handguns, hunting rifles and semiautomatic rifles.
Both were planned long before the shooting in Newtown invigorated calls for increased gun control. That didn’t stop critics from blasting the raffles as, at best, in poor taste and, at worst, criminal.
John Rosenthal, founder and director of the Massachusetts-based Stop Handgun Violence, called the chiefs’ raffle “insane” and “criminally irresponsible.”
“In 33 states, including Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, the winner of this AR-15 can turn around the same day and sell it to anyone without an ID or background check,” Rosenthal said. “They should cancel their raffle and give away a nice mountain bike or snowmobile.”
Jonathan Lowy, director of the legal action program at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said he knows of no state in which the raffle would be illegal. But “having these gun giveaways and gun raffles can trivialize the seriousness of firearms,” Lowy said.
In a letter posted on the chiefs association website, Salem Police Chief Paul Donovan extended his sympathies to the families of those killed in Newtown but stressed it and other tragic shootings “are contrary to lawful and responsible gun ownership.”
Donovan, who did not respond to interview requests, wrote that the raffle’s rules require winners meet all applicable state and federal laws, including background checks. The goal of the raffle – to raise $30,000 to offset the cost of the weeklong police cadet training academy – has already been met. The 1,000 raffle tickets, at $30 apiece, sold out last month.
Three of the guns being raffled off are named on a list of weapons that would be prohibited under a proposed ban introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in the wake of the Sandy Hook rampage. That proposal would also ban ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
While the Newtown shooting has intensified the criticism of the chiefs’ raffle, other giveaways have had similarly inauspicious timing.
After a 2011 shooting rampage in Arizona wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others, the county Republican Party raffled off a Glock handgun to raise money for voter outreach. Its slogan was “Help Pima GOP get out the vote and maybe help yourself to a new Glock.” The county GOP interim chairman said at the time he didn’t think there was anything inappropriate about the promotion.
Missouri state Rep. John McCaherty raised campaign funds last August by raffling off an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a month after a similar gun was used in the Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting that killed 12 people and wounded 58. McCaherty didn’t return calls seeking comment.
The owner of an Atlanta-area sporting goods store doesn’t understand the outrage.
Last November, Jay Wallace offered anyone who brought their “I Voted” sticker a raffle ticket to win a handgun or rifle from his store, Adventure Outdoors. When Georgia’s secretary of state pointed out it’s a felony to offer gifts for votes, Wallace opened it up to anyone.
Wallace said the whole thing had been resolved by the time a local state senator filed a complaint about the raffle with the state, setting off a barrage of publicity.
“It was really unbelievable — it made it around the world,” he told the Associated Press. “Thousands of people signed up for the raffle. We were really grateful to him.”
Wallace said he sees no problem with chiefs of police or anybody else raffling guns.
“It’s going to a good cause,” Wallace said. “People want a chance to win something that they want. Everybody wins.”
Jack Kimball, chairman of Granite State Patriots and organizer of a rally outside the New Hampshire statehouse last month opposing gun control, said it angers him that people are using Sandy Hook and other tragic shootings to bash the New Hampshire chiefs.
“It’s hysteria that doesn’t belong here,” said Kimball. “They shouldn’t wavier. They should have the raffle.”
The gun raffle is the first held by the chiefs association and could be the last if Robert Sprague gets his way.
The marketing consultant wrote Donovan 31 emails — one for every gun being raffled — before he finally heard back. Although he couldn’t stop this year’s raffle, Sprague said Donovan seemed open to his offer of help to promote a different kind of fundraiser next year.
“I feel we’ve made some progress, and that’s better than no progress,” Sprague said. “I just don’t think peace officers should be putting guns on the streets.”
Sprague discussed his concerns on WNHN radio, which began its own fundraising campaign to try to raise $30,000 for the cadet academy so the association wouldn’t have to raffle the guns.
“If we aren’t successful, we’re going to donate the money to organizations that serve victims of gun violence,” station manager Brian Beihl said.
Any ticket holders disappointed at not winning a firearm in the chiefs association drawing might consider buying a ticket for the Cheshire County Shooting Sports Education Foundation raffle. It’s giving away a gun a day in June.