The spate of mass shootings leading up to and including the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine's Day, left David Hadley of Crawfordsville, Indiana, “shocked and saddened” and wondering what he could do.
His faith told him to “start where you are.”
So he organized a gun buyback program at Wabash Avenue Presbyterian Church.
Only five guns were turned in — two of them by Hadley himself.
While Hadley’s church and other organizations attempt to cut down on the number of guns out in their community, other charitable groups nationwide continued to lean on public interest in guns as a means of making money to support their causes.
In Barren County, Kentucky, The Cave Country Lions Club has used a gun raffle to raise money for vision screenings, to purchase glasses for the poor, and to put in a park bench and plant trees in a local cemetery.
“It was one of our biggest fundraisers,” said Linda Hunt, the club’s treasurer. “Just about anybody we asked would buy at least one (ticket), and as far as I know, we never did have any negative out of it.”
In Crawford County, Pennsylvania, a high sports booster club held a gun raffle that included an AR-15 that barely raised an eyebrow in the community until a reader noticed a story about it in the Meadville Tribune, said Becky Barner treasurer of the Saegertown Panthers Football Boosters.
Saegertown resident Tom Cagle objected to the sale, calling it “hypocritical” to hold a gun raffle to benefit students at a time when students across the nation are lobbying to get their schools better-protected from gun violence.
He’s by no means the only one raising the question in recent years.
In Oklahoma, when the McAlester Quarterback Club announced plans in 2016 to include an AR-15 in a gun raffle, the event was canceled due to public backlash. McAlester Public Schools Superintendent Randy Hughes said he feels in today's time, having a gun raffle is not a wise move.
"I know living in southeastern Oklahoma that people deer hunt but I think there are other ways we can raise money," Hughes said.
In Missouri, a fund-raiser for youth sports teams included a raffle for an AR-15.
Kory Johnson, coach of the Webb City Makos, one of the youth teams raffling an AR-15, said the fundraiser was planned as long ago as last summer and that ticket sales have been going on since before the latest shooting. Johnson added that he plans to assure that whoever wins the weapon has safety training and can pass a background check.
Nationally, organizations are navigating the same difficult waters.
The United Way has barred its local organizations from sponsoring gun-related events for seven years, according to Southerlyn Reisig, a spokeswoman for United Way International.
“We recognize that the sale of firearms is legal in the United States and that Americans have a constitutional right to bear arms,” Reisig said. “Our concern in this matter relates only to the use of the United Way brand in conjunction with the distribution of firearms as these activities can damage the welfare, interest or reputation of the United Way brand.”
Rotary International announced a similar move last spring, but after a backlash from members, the organization softened its move away from gun raffles. Rotary’s current position is that clubs can hold gun raffles as long as the firearms are owned by third-parties and not by the Rotary Club, according to a statement provided by Rotary International for this story.
Division regarding buybacks
The move toward buybacks is prompting the same sort of divided opinions.
In Anderson, Indiana, a large iron caldron filled with shotguns, assault-style rifles, handguns and knives greets visitors in the lobby of the police department. The melted and mutilated weapons that were recovered from local crime scenes are part of an art project commissioned by the city and cast by Chicago-based artist Kenneth Ryden. The display symbolizes the need to destroy implements of destruction before they are used.
Just weeks after announcing it was pulling assault-style rifles off its shelves, Dick's Sporting Goods announced it was destroying all the weapons.
But Madison County, Indiana law enforcement officials question the efficacy of buyback programs.
“I think they might be somewhat, but not substantially effective,” said Sheriff Scott Mellinger.
That opinion was echoed by law enforcement officials and prosecutors in multiple states.
“What person in their right mind believes that a criminal is going to sell his or her gun to law enforcement? Gun buyback programs are useless,” Woodward (Okla.) Police Chief Curt Terry said.
In New Castle, Pennsylvania, Lawrence County District Attorney John Lamancusa said he’s always open to exploring ways to fight gun violence. But there’s little reason to believe that a gun-buyback program in his community would help much, he said.
"There is little evidence to suggest that someone illegally having a weapon would voluntarily turn that gun in," he said.
The events may be short-changing gun-owners, added Clay County (Indiana) Sheriff Paul Harden.
He said people can be taken advantage of on a buyback program, because some people might not know the value of the firearm they possess. A gun could be rare or a valuable antique, or it might be a faulty firearm. In either case, the seller would receive the same buyback price for the gun no matter its actual value.
In Valdosta, Georgia, Pastor William Morgan of Morning Star Baptist Church said the turnout for his gun trades have not been as robust as he hoped but he’s not giving up.
“The program has been running for three years, maybe twice a year," he said. The last such event was in January.
Those showing up with weapons to hand in to Morgan and his volunteers at Southside Recreation Center during one of the trade-ins received a Bible in exchange. "We've had moderate success with the program," he said. "We want to rid the community of illegal weapons," such as those with no serial numbers, he said. The trade-ins are meant to appeal to young adults and high school students."
'Public is frustrated'
The debate over gun buybacks and charity gun raffles illustrates how government inaction on efforts to tighten gun laws is spurring people to consider how they can make a difference, said David Chipman, a retired ATF agent who is now a senior policy analyst for the Giffords Law Center.
“The public is frustrated, he said. “They want to take action.”
Chipman said buybacks provide a means for people to get rid of weapons they don't want, limiting the potential that they fall into the wrong hands.
Chipman added that he struggles to understand how community groups can justify the decision to continue sponsoring gun shows. Those who insist on continuing to use gun raffles as a fund-raiser appear to be making as plain a political statement as those who choose to stop doing them, he said.
Johnson County (Texas) Sheriff Adam King said that to his knowledge his department has never participated in a gun buy back.
“No,” King said when asked if he would support such a program. “I don’t want to do anything that might project that I support gun control measures. I’m not sure if those programs do or not but I think they at least carry the undertone of trying to limit guns.
“Criminals are not going to show up and sell us their guns and I’m not for limiting the right of honest citizens to own guns."
Deshayn Wilson of Muskogee, Oklahoma, said that a gun raffle just seems like a natural reflection of his interests and how it impacts his efforts to help his community. While not a raffle, Wilson recently sponsored, a shooting competition to raise money for a local nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence. He’s gotten hate mail from far and wide because of it, Wilson said.
"If I was a golfer we might be holding golf tournaments instead, but I'm not," Wilson said.
Editor's note: CNHI LLC newspapers in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma,Pennsylvania and Texas contributed to this story.