A youth football and cheer organization in rural Ohio has sparked controversy over a fundraising raffle offering a high powered AM-15 semi-automatic rifle.
The president of the organization said that parents were allowed to opt-out of the rifle raffle and sell tickets for a gift basket raffle instead.
Due to the recent controversy, the president said the organization is considering doing away with the rifle raffle entirely for future fundraisers.
Parents of elementary school cheerleaders and football players in New Richmond, Ohio, have been asked to sell raffle tickets for a powerful semi-automatic rifle to pay for some of the team's expenses. Each parent was asked to sell 10 raffle tickets worth $10 each. Five of those raffle tickets went towards a generic gift basket, but the other 10 went towards an AM-15 optic ready semi-automatic rifle. The rifle is a close relative to the more commonly used AR-15, which has been used in mass shootings around the world and has been singled out by activists looking to regulate assault-style weapons.
The sports organization, called Junior Lions Football, fields elementary football teams with players between the ages of five and 12, as well as kindergarten through sixth-grade cheer squads. Parents of these players have sold the gun raffle tickets for the past four years, but in the wake of multiple mass shootings, including those this month in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left 29 people dead, some of the parents have started speaking out.
"Say one of the kids in the high school got a hold of it — got the AR-15 or AM-15 and shot up a school with it, and I'm the one that sold the raffle ticket to his dad?"
One of those parents is Heather Chilton. In an interview with Fox 19 Now, Chilton explained how her excitement to sign her 7-year-old daughter up for cheerleading was shot down when she learned she would have to help sell tickets for a powerful firearm.
"This is absurd, you're having elementary kids sell your AR-15. Why?" Chilton told the station. "I highly doubt that something would happen with the gun, but say it did. Say one of the kids in the high school got a hold of it — got the AR-15 or AM-15 and shot up a school with it, and I'm the one that sold the raffle ticket to his dad?"
Sari Brittain, another local parent who was preparing to sign up her four-year-old daughter, told Local 12 she was shocked as well.
"We live in a world where you don't know if Bob down the street is OK with guns," Brittain said. "So why would I take my 4-year-old daughter down the street to meet Bob who's not OK with it? And now he knows my face and my daughter's face."
Parents have been allowed to opt-out of gun raffle
In a phone interview with Insider, Junior Lions Football president Robert Wooten explained that parents are allowed to opt-out of selling the rife raffle tickets. Wooten said the parents could choose to exclusively sell the gift basic raffles or skip the raffle altogether and pay the $100 fee upfront in cash. According to the organization's website, all parents are required to participate in the fundraising or pay the $100 amount. Wooten said his organization had to spend $4,000 for insurance and equipment last year. The proceeds from the gun and gift basket raffle sales are used to help alleviate those costs.
"This is not a child raffle," Wooten said. "We're not asking the little girls or the little players to sell the gun raffle tickets." Wooten said that three parents have issued a formal complaint about the raffle this year.
Local 12 obtained instructions for the raffle provided to the cheerleaders' parents.
"Each player needs to sell a minimum of 10 tickets, totaling $100 per cheerleader," the raffle instructions read. "They will each receive 5 gun and 5 gift basket tickets." Lower down on the instruction is bullet point telling the children, "if you have a parent struggling or refusing to sell please let me know ASAP so that we can help out the situation."
When asked about the language of the above instructions seemingly telling "players" to sell the tickets, Wooten said it was intended for the parents, not the children. In some cases, Wooten said, parents have one child on the football team and another on the cheer squad. In that situation, the parent would be responsible for selling 20 tickets — 10 for each student.
"The item [the rifle] was chosen because in our area it's not a big deal, it's not an issue," Wooten said. "Guns are not an issue in our area as far as people having major hysteria like what's going on in the rest of the world." While the rifle raffles were required for the past four years, Wooten said the organization included the gift basket option this year to alleviate concerns felt by parents in the current climate of mass shootings.
For many others around the country, powerful semi-automatic rifles like these have come to symbolize the horrors of mass shootings, often involving children. Josh Sugarmann, who researches and analyzes gun violence across the US as the Executive Director of the Violence Policy Center, said young people shouldn't be involved, directly or symbolically, with the sale of firearms.
"Having children sell raffle tickets for the same type of assault rifle that was used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School mass shootings is macabre and should be offensive to students, parents, and teachers," Sugarmann said. "We should be talking about ways to protect school-age children, not using them to sell assault weapons."
As a result of the formal parent complaints and subsequent media reports, he and the rest of the board are planning to reevaluate the fundraising options and may no longer include the gun raffle at all.
"We're after the greater good here, we're not after the greater harm or greater exposure," Wooten said.