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N.H. police chiefs criticized for gun prizes in raffle

The Ruger SR-556, to be raffled on May 1.
The Ruger SR-556, to be raffled on May 1. Credit:

The first of 31 prizes scheduled to be raffled by New Hampshire police chiefs in May has a retail value of $1,995. It also has folding iron sights, a collapsible stock, and weighs 7.4 pounds, according to the manufacturer’s website.

The winner, chosen from 1,000 entrants in the sold-out contest, will walk away with a military-style assault rifle that closely resembles the weapon used to massacre 20 first-graders and six adults in Newtown, Conn.

The raffle, which will give away a firearm every day in May, has unleashed a growing storm of criticism against the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. That group, critics say, is acting with tone-deaf insensitivity while memories of the Newtown killings remain painfully fresh.

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In addition to the first day’s prize — a Ruger SR-556 semiautomatic carbine that holds 30-round magazines — the police chiefs will give away other semiautomatic assault rifles, bolt-action hunting rifles, and semiautomatic and single-shot handguns to benefit a New Hampshire law-enforcement training academy for 14- to 20-year-olds.

“There’s nothing wrong with what the chiefs are doing,” said state Representative Al Baldasaro, a Republican from Londonderry who helped write the state’s “stand your ground” law, which allows those who feel threatened to use force to protect themselves. “The only ones who are saying it’s insensitive are these liberals out there who want to take away your guns. The shooting in Newtown had nothing to do with law-abiding citizens.”

Some critics, however, are outraged by the content and the timing of the raffle.

“It’s disgusting that any law-enforcement agency would be voluntarily giving away military-style weapons,” said John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence, a gun-control group based in Newton, Mass. “This raffle giveaway should be canceled and shame on the New Hampshire Police Chiefs Association if they don’t.”

The police chiefs group, however, has not backed down. Anne Dalton, the association’s executive director, said this week that the raffle will proceed as planned.

“While this raffle falls on the heels of the recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police extends their deepest sympathies to the families and first responders,” the group’s president, Police Chief Paul T. Donovan of Salem, N.H., said in a statement. “New Hampshire Chiefs of Police feel the issues with these tragic shootings are ones that are contrary to lawful and responsible gun ownership.”

Donovan did not return telephone calls for comment this week. Other chiefs declined comment, deferring to the association president.

Although New Hampshire does not require a license to purchase or possess a gun, background checks will be performed as required by law when the winners pick up their firearms at an authorized dealer, according to the association website.

On that website, the chiefs association touts “31 chances to win some of today’s most popular New Hampshire-made sporting firearms.” Raffle tickets cost $30 each.

Sturm, Ruger & Co., which has a manufacturing plant in Newport, N.H., and Sig Sauer, based in Exeter, N.H., have provided firearms for the raffle, which will be held at Rody’s Gun Shop in Newport, N.H. A Sig Sauer handgun was one of three weapons carried by Adam Lanza, the Newtown assailant, in the Dec. 14 shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

At the top of Sturm Ruger’s website, a banner proclaims: “Protect your rights! Gun rights are under attack. We, the silent majority, need to speak up now and make sure our voice is heard to protect our rights.”

Officials from the gun manufacturers did not return telephone calls for comment.

Despite the criticism, gun-rights activists are defending the raffle as a good cause organized by responsible law enforcement officials. Across the country, police officers have been a strong voice for stricter gun control, which is gaining momentum in Washington and many state capitols. Before the federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, 28 New Hampshire police chiefs signed a letter in an unsuccessful effort to extend the prohibition. One of those chiefs, Michael Maloney of Greenland, was fatally shot in April while serving a drug-related search warrant.

Baldasaro, the state representative, served in the Marines for 22 years and said he knows firsthand of the dangers posed by criminals. Gunmen twice struck at Mr. B’s, his family-run restaurant in Somerville, Mass.

“After the second shooting, we shut it down,” Baldasaro said. “It’s not the guns, it’s the individual. With all these drug addicts and criminals, those are who we should be going after.”

New Hampshire residents, he argued, realize that guns in the hands of responsible owners can deter crime. “New Hampshire is one of the safest states in the country. Why? You think twice before you do a crime here because people can carry” a weapon openly, Baldasaro said.

Critics of the raffle, however, questioned why New Hampshire police would want to channel high-capacity weapons to the public. The Ruger SR-556 to be awarded May 1 not only is similar to the Newtown weapon, but also resembles the semiautomatic weapons used in the movie-theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., in July, and the Dec. 24 ambush shooting in Webster, N.Y., that killed two firefighters.

“These are certainly not the kinds of guns that the New Hampshire police want to find when they go into a domestic violence situation,” said Cathie Whittenburg, spokeswoman for the New England Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. “They’re designed so you can kill as many as people as possible in as short amount of time as possible. As horrific as the shooting in Newtown was, the gun did what it was designed to do.”

To Baldasaro, however, the gun’s firepower is not a good reason to cancel the raffle or change its prizes. “It’s very simple,” he said. “Some law-abiding citizen is probably going to win that gun.”

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