WEST CHESTER — Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh on Monday defended her office against complaints about a charity raffle featuring an assault-style rifle at a time when concern over such weapons has been heightened by recent shootings.
“I can understand that there may be people who are concerned,” Welsh said in an interview in her office in the county Justice Center. “But you need to understand two things: This is a legal weapon, and the individual (who wins it) has to undergo a background check.”
As the elected official responsible for overseeing the issuance of gun permits in the county, Welsh said she is an ardent supporter not only of gun safety, but also of responsible gun ownership.
“I am very diligent in assuring that anyone who has a license to carry (a concealed gun) is a responsible citizen,” she said. “It certainly is not my intention to be insensitive.”
But that is the way some who heard of the raffle saw it.
“I find the whole thing shocking,” said Stephanie Markstein of West Chester, who said she was alerted to the gun raffle through an e-mail from a friend late last week. “I just think the whole thing is irresponsible, and in light of everything that has been happening recently I find it appalling.”
Terry Heyman, a West Whiteland mother and former prosecutor in the County District Attorney’s Office, echoed those sentiments.
“I think that gun violence is the biggest threat to the public safety that we face today, and it is irresponsible to throw another gun into the mix,” Heyman said on Monday. “This seems insensitive coming from a law enforcement agency, and it also seems unnecessary. To think that an agency charged with protecting the public is auctioning off an assault weapon is just crazy.”
According to Welsh, the raffle was organized by the Chester County Deputy Sheriffs Association and has been in the works for several months. The prizes include $100 cash, a Savage .22-caliber bolt-action rifle and a Colt AR-15 5.56 mm carbine rifle. The guns had been donated to the deputies association from a county resident, she said, although she did not name the person.
Winners of the guns will have to submit themselves to a federal background check before the weapons will be legally transferred to them, Welsh emphasized.
The raffle, which is being held to benefit the sheriff’s department’s dog unit programs, will be held at the Downingtown Country Club on May 13. Raffle tickets are $20 a piece.
Welsh said that the proceeds from the raffle will go to paying for training in the department’s dog units, and she noted that the recent training of an arson dog cost more than $6,000, none of which comes from taxpayer funds.
She said that the gun raffle had drawn considerable interest from law enforcement officers, members of the deputies’ association, and local sporting associations. It was recently advertised by the Southern Chester County Sportsmen’s Association, for example.
“There would have not been as much interest in the raffle if we’d been giving away something else, like a flat-screen television,” she said.
The item that drew most strenuous complaints was the Colt AR-15. Some of those interviewed by the Daily Local News on Monday noted that it was a model very similar to the weapon used in the mass shooting of children and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. The gun was originally manufactured for use by the U.S. Army, similar to the M-16 rifle.
“I think the fewer of these types of guns in the community the better,” said Andi Hubbard of Downingtown. “This was a poor choice as a way to raise funds. I would think it would eliminate some people who might want to buy tickets. To raffle off an AR-15 is just crazy to me.”
“I think it was ill-advised,” she said.
Oxford Mayor Geoff Henry, who has spent considerable energy trying to get a community discussion about gun control going in that borough, expressed some dismay at the choice of an assault rifle in the raffle.
“I so support the Second Amendment, and the right of citizens to bear arms,” he said Monday. “But I am not sure why an average citizen would need to own an assault rifle. And I am a little concerned that the county sheriff’s department would need to raffle off that type of gun.”
Henry, a member of the national Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, said he recognized there was little to do to stop the raffle from taking place other than public opinion.
“There is nothing to prevent them from raffling off this weapon, other than where we are as a county in thinking about gun control and gun violence. But I would have hoped they would have taken that into consideration before choosing that type of weapon.”
West Chester Mayor Carolyn Comitta was somewhat more receptive to the raffle, or at least the way it is being organized.
“While this is not the way I would choose to raise money for a government agency, I applaud the sheriff’s office for ensuring that the winners of the AR-15 and the (other gun) undergo background checks,” she said in an e-mail in response to questions from the Daily Local News.
“ Too many assault weapons and other long guns are sold in Pennsylvania without background checks,” said Comitta, another member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “It’s time to require background checks for every gun transfer no matter who the seller is or what kind of gun is being sold. “
Welsh noted that her office is responsible for a number of classes dealing with gun safety and proper procedure, including a session for female gun owners held Monday known as the “Annie Oakley Gun Safety Course.” She said she had spoken with both Henry and Comitta and had tried to address their concerns.
“It was certainly not our intention to be insensitive,” she again stressed. “However, this is a legal weapon that will be transferred to a law abiding, legal resident.”
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