Criticism mounted Thursday over the gift of a National Rifle Association lifetime membership from Anne Arundel County Republicans to a boy who was suspended from school in March when he chewed a pastry into the shape of a pistol.
"It's outrageous that elected officials in our state who don't have anywhere near all the facts of this situation would choose to exploit an 8-year-old child for political purposes in a stunt like this," Anne Arundel County schools spokesman Bob Mosier said Thursday.
The night before, House of Delegates Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke presented Josh Welch with the $550 membership during a Republican fundraiser that derided Maryland's new gun law. Kipke's tongue-in-cheek presentation involved a Pop-Tart fashioned into a gun and firearm safety tips.
"Obviously, only Democrats in Maryland would think this is dangerous," Kipke said as he wielded the pastry on stage. "Always remember safe handling of your Pop-Tarts. The Democrats will be outraged by this, but too bad."
Objections also came from Republican state Sen. J.B. Jennings, a gun-rights advocate who, after Josh's suspension, introduced legislation to limit how administrators can punish children for what Jennings described as "playground behavior."
"We're trying to get this off the kid's permanent record, and this completely makes it a political issue," said Jennings, who represents Baltimore County and voted against Maryland's new gun law. Jennings said Republicans were using the boy as a "political pawn."
"This isn't about gun control," Jennings said. "I'm just shaking my head that all of a sudden he's being used as a poster boy in the gun debate."
Josh has given interviews in which he explained he was trying to make a mountain, but the pastry ended up looking like a pistol. A lawyer has filed an appeal with the school system to get the boy's two-day suspension from Park Elementary School removed from Josh's record.
After receiving the NRA membership, Josh said in an interview he didn't know what the organization was or what it meant. That comment prompted Anne Arundel County Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat, to offer to buy Josh a lifetime membership to the American Civil Liberties Union.
"No one should tolerate the attempt by Anne Arundel County's Republican leadership to indoctrinate 8-year-olds into an extreme way of thinking," Benoit said. "To put him up there and exploit him for the benefit of the far-right gun agenda is outrageous."
Josh's father did not return a call Thursday seeking comment on the controversy. Kipke said the parents, who live in his district, told him Thursday that Josh enjoyed the attention.
"They should lighten up," he said of the critics. "This was about poking fun at an issue, lifting a kid's spirits and making a political point."