It's hard to find fault with any idea that helps bring more than 600 toys to needy kids this season, but in Hernando County, a raffle designed to benefit Toys for Tots has a lot of people talking.
That's because the raffle's grand prize was an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
Should that matter?
Steve Champion, Vice Chairman of the Hernando County Commission, doesn't see anything wrong with it. Champion, who also owns American Gun and Pawn in Brooksville, wanted to help the local Toys for Tots effort. So, last month he donated an AR-15 to be raffled off for toy donations.
“You know, it was about getting toys for the kids. It's not a controversy,” said Champion. “The intention was to help those kids. Help those kids, and raise as many toys as we could for a good cause.”
You can't say it didn't work.
A neighboring business gave out one raffle ticket for each toy brought to them and by the November 18th deadline they'd collected 600 toys for the local Toys for Tots chapter.
“Toys for Tots wasn't even involved in the actual formation of the giveaway,” said John Lee, who owns a restaurant next door to Champion’s business. “That was me, and Steve trying to help them with their event.”
Regardless of good intentions, a local volunteer with the Toys for Tots program said that something didn't seem right to her. After all, the organization won't even distribute toy guns that look realistic to children.
So the idea of using a very real AR-15 to motivate people to donate was reported.
We asked people in Brooksville what they think and got a mixed reaction.
“Just doesn't seem right. And affiliated with kids? Nah,” said Ron Scharr.
“I have a little bit of mixed emotion in regard to it, but I think it's for a good cause,” said Cynthia Snow.
“I don't see anything wrong as long as it's legal and he's doing things the right way,” said Carrie Hall.
The Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots is headquartered outside Washington, DC. David Coper, their Vice President of Operations, says the raffle's flier had implied the organization had directly sponsored the idea - which they would not.
“The pictures are what confused. People who saw those pictures, thought Toys for Tots was sponsoring a raffle of an AR-15. We would not sponsor an event like that,” said Cooper.
Toys for Tots says it's happy to accept the donation. They need the toys. What they don't need, however, is conflict.
“We accept donations from anyone that wants to donate but we need to separate ourselves from something like this that would be controversial,” said Cooper.
Champion and Lee say they’re not dissuaded, and will figure it out. Their plan for next year? Even more guns.
“Oh, I'm going to do three next year. I committed to three right now. I'll do three next year. And we'll make it bigger and better than ever,” said Champion.
“You want to draw a crowd? Do you want to get a reaction? Get you some big trucks with big tires and camouflage and an AR-15. Country music,” said Lee, “You'll have a crowd in Brooksville, I guarantee you.”
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