Is raffle about guns or grandstanding?

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January 16, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

Is raffle about guns or grandstanding?

Call it the Big Bang theory. The theory of political gamesmanship, not of cosmogony.

Attract lots of attention for a small price. More bang for the buck. Show that you are on the offensive on gun ownership, not on the defense.

That's the apparent strategy behind the Carroll County Republican Central Committee's idea raffle off a handgun as a fundraiser next month.

The funds raised from selling thousands of $5 raffle tickets (4,000 reportedly printed) are secondary, despite what the poor-mouthing GOP leaders say.

Yes, it's a good return. But the most important thing for those who lead the county's Republican organization is the political eclat, the chance to raise a higher profile in Maryland and in the United States, to stir up the waters, the riposte to gun-ban advocates.

That the Carroll Republicans have already achieved. People are talking about it, politicians of all stripe add to the controversy with their bombast and declarations of "conscience." Indignant editorials scream at the "pro-gun" gesture.

What's been missing in all of this is that the raffle is for a prize of $500 cash. It's not for a 9 mm Beretta handgun. The GOP committee doesn't even have a firearm in hand or on order.

The winner can take the cash or go to a Hampstead gunshop and buy any kind of gun or rifle up to the limit. The shop will take care of the registration, background processing, etc. It will also give the winner a book and a gun safety course. The Republicans simply write the check to the gun shop; they don't have to buy the gun themselves.

All of which confirms that the raffle is an "in-your-face" act by the local Republicans to gain attention. How much news coverage, how much political reaction would the Republicans have garnered if they said the raffle was for $500 cash or for a U.S. Savings Bond? Very little.

Instead, they tweaked the noses of gun-control partisans. They upset some Republican leaders. They became the darlings of every right-wing radio talk show in America. They solidified their credentials with the faithful in Carroll and gained stature in western Maryland counties where conservatism and the gospel of the Second Amendment reign.

That they have raised the dander of a certain Northwest Baltimore legislator and the gun-lock governor is icing on the cake.

None of which has hurt the sale of raffle tickets. They're being sold at work or to friends in other counties, with the advisory that the real prize is the money. Meanwhile, the tickets are also selling to out-of-state buyers who support the gun freedom platform.

At least, you could say, the county Republicans are putting their own money into the raffle.

Contrast that with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who's committing $3 million in public funds to subsidize the Beretta USA gun factory located in (guess where?) Mr. Glendening's home county, Prince George's.

Governor Smart Gun wants to give Beretta the money to develop an effective built-in lock for handguns and, perhaps, to create a firearm that can only be fired by the registered owner.

Just another public grant to keep Maryland industry competitive in the face of legislation to make handguns child-proof, Mr. Glendening explained.

He didn't point out that rival Colt's Manufacturing Co. in Connecticut has already formed a unit to produce Smart Guns, with an available technology. And without blatant public subsidy.

President Clinton also proposes a $10 million fund to develop safer gun technology nationwide, from which Beretta could presumably benefit. Why the urgency for public subsidy in Maryland when the legal handgun trade is a national (and international ) industry? No jurisdiction yet requires such mechanisms on handguns.

Back to the Carroll Republicans. Their raffle won't win any converts to the gun-rights club; it is preaching to the choir. Furthermore, the Republican Party has such a tight grip on Carroll County that another $5,000 or so in the bank won't have much impact on the outcome of local elections.

GOP candidates raise their own campaign money, without kowtowing to the county central committee; Democrats rarely stand a chance in these countywide elections. So the central committee's financial impact on races is modest.

The Carroll raffle has also provoked division within the state Republican organization. Ellen Sauerbrey, who led the GOP ticket in the past two gubernatorial elections, and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Baltimore County Republican congressman, criticized the Carroll fund-raiser.

As Mr. Ehrlich pointed out, the debate now centers on the raffle prize rather than on the threat of stricter gun controls pressed by state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. Waving a red flag at the bull is not effective politics, he observed. It can be divisive for the party; committee member Betty L. Smith resigned over what she called the "irresponsible" raffle.

Obviously, owning a handgun is legal for most folks. But it is a deadly serious decision to make. It shouldn't be made as a flippant political gesture. Better to take the cash and make an unfettered personal decision on such an important responsibility. That would be a true Smart Gun action.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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