JEFFERSON - In Frederick County, four volunteer fire companies have joined together for what is believed to be the largest raffle of its kind in the state: a gun-a-day giveaway for the year 2004.
What might raise a few eyebrows among city folk is increasingly common practice in rural Maryland - and a big money-maker to boot.
For the Jefferson Volunteer Fire Department, which exists mostly on donations, its expected $35,000 share will make this gun raffle the largest fund-raiser the company has ever had, far surpassing the fish fries, pancake breakfasts and all-you-can-eat "feeds" that are standard fare here. It will go toward building new bunk rooms, bathrooms and meeting space atop the firehouse.
"We're a small-time volunteer fire company," said Eddie Lapole, Jefferson's assistant chief. "We're trying to make ends meet."
What makes this unique is its scale. Other nonprofit groups have held smaller gun raffles. But they haven't before offered 366 guns in a year, 2004 being a leap year.
For $30, you can buy one of the Sportsman's Calendars being sold by fire companies in Brunswick, Jefferson, Emmitsburg and Wolfsville. Each of the 10,000 copies has a small red number on the back page - 0000 to 9999. Every day starting Jan. 1, when the Maryland Lottery draws its Pick 4 winner, that number will determine who wins that day's weapon.
No handguns are being given away, just a wide variety of rifles and shotguns for hunting. And to claim the prize, each winner must submit to a standard background check performed by an Emmitsburg gun shop where the guns will be kept. If the winner chooses, a $100 prize can be claimed instead. The guns being purchased by the fire departments are worth significantly more than that.
It's all perfectly legal, say organizers and state officials.
"Everyone took it the wrong way when the word first got out," said David Young, the Brunswick fire company's financial secretary. "It's sportsmen's guns. It's not like they're illegal guns. They're guns for hunters."
When the raffle was announced, a Hagerstown television station ran a piece on it and then took a poll of viewers. As Lapole recalls, he was "tickled" to hear that 79 percent were for it, only 21 percent against.
"There have not been any protests or concerns or letters to the editor," said Wayne Powell, public information officer for the Vigilant Hose Co., Emmitsburg's volunteers. "Guns are just a routine part of life. Any house you walk into in a rural setting, it's more common than not that you'll find guns."
Calendar sales have been brisk. Each company has been charged with selling 2,500, and most report they are well on their way - with four months to go before a .22-caliber Ruger Hornet is given away on New Year's Day.
Lapole tells of a recent phone call from a man who wanted to buy 20 calendars for his friends and family. Lapole thinks they make great Christmas gifts.
"Around here there's a lot of gun enthusiasts and a lot of hunters. They seek us out for the calendars once we advertise," said Tim Clarke, president of the Emmitsburg fire company.
Frederick County Sheriff James W. Hagy said he isn't "the least bit uncomfortable" with the notion of a public safety agency putting 366 more guns into circulation.
This is hunting country, he said. Guns and hunting are part of the fabric of a community fighting to hold onto its rural roots even as growth encroaches from the south and east.
"Guns have gotten such a terrible connotation to them because people think guns are designed just to kill people," Hagy said. "In our county, they're used for sporting purposes or for hunting purposes. If you go back to Cain and Abel they didn't have guns but one killed the other. ...
"There's probably not a lot of good reasons to have guns in the big cities," he said. "Here in the rural counties, it's kind of hard to imagine using the guns except for what they're designed for."
Don't tell that to Leah Barrett, executive director of CeaseFire Maryland, formerly Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse. "We're very worried by this kind of phenomenon," Barrett said of the ever-expanding gun raffles. "Our attitude about all of this is, surely there have to be more intelligent ways to raise money. This country is certainly saturated with guns as it is."
Thousands of accidental gun deaths occur each year, she said, and each new gun in the public domain increases the risk.
"Let's just use some common sense here," said the Montgomery County mother.
Even though the winners of the raffle are based on lottery numbers, it has no affiliation with the state agency that runs the lottery. But it is perfectly legal to use those numbers - many groups do when looking for random digits - as long as permits are in place, said Andrea D. Johnson, an associate state attorney general and principal counsel to the Maryland Lottery.
"Once the numbers are drawn, they become public information," she said.
The lottery prefers that a disclaimer is printed on raffle tickets - or on calendars in this case, she said. The simple calendars, with pictures of equipment used by each fire company featured, were printed before officials learned of any desire for a disclaimer, fire officials said.
"They may think it's a promotion of the Maryland Lottery," Johnson said. "We have nothing to do with them. In the event there is any fraud, [a buyer] could say, `Well, we thought there was a state endorsement.'"
The success of the calendars has already sparked plans to run the raffle again in 2005, Brunswick's Young said, and only reinforces what people in these parts knew about such fund-raisers: Guns mean big money.
"You'd be surprised how many gun raffles go on in a year's time, not only in our county," said Emmitsburg's Clarke. "They're ongoing in every community."