It’s canceled now, but should Meck sheriff have scheduled a gun raffle to begin with?

Advertisement for campaign gun raffle canceled by Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael in the wake of the Florida school shootings.
Advertisement for campaign gun raffle canceled by Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael in the wake of the Florida school shootings.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael said Tuesday his days of holding gun raffles to raise campaign cash are probably over.

He had one in 2014, when he was first elected. And he had planned to have another last Saturday, but canceled it in the wake of a Florida school shooting that left 17 people dead.

“Optics-wise, I am not interested in doing (a gun raffle),” he said, stressing that his thinking “is not political. All these kids lost their lives. Out of respect for them, I made a decision. And I am not even planning to have another one.”

Mecklenburg County Sheriff, Irwin Carmichael John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

But Carmichael’s two challengers in the May 8 Democratic primary questioned the wisdom of a sheriff even considering sponsoring an event to give away firearms – including the kind of assault-style rifles used in the Florida massacre and in a long list of other mass shootings in the United States.

“It’s irresponsible and shows poor judgment, for any sheriff, not just Carmichael, to do this, considering the number of guns on our streets,” said Antoine Ensley, a former sergeant and shift commander with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

Ensley, who’s making his third run for sheriff, also asked why it took the Florida deaths to get Carmichael to cancel his planned gun raffle when there had been so many other such shooting rampages in recent months and years.

“The sad thing is that it’s been going on for a long time,” he said. “(Carmichael) didn’t just get a conscience, I hope. ... If we hadn’t had the shootings in Florida, he would have had that raffle last weekend.”

Garry McFadden, who is also a candidate for the Democratic nomination for sheriff, said that instead of raffling off guns, those who want to promote the Second Amendment should focus instead on gun safety.

“Why not raffle off a gun safety class? Or a gun safe (for the home)? Or a gun box that can be connected to a car seat?” said McFadden, a former full-time CMPD detective who still works part time for the department. “In law enforcement, we need to be aware of the climate in America. ... We need to help bring peace to the community, and we don’t need to have things that remind us of violence.”

McFadden said that he’d prefer raffling off things that would touch the broader community, not just gun owners – things like iPads, computers, or free housecleaning for a week for a single parent.

Carmichael, who is running for a second term this year, said other sheriffs and Fraternal Order of Police chapters across North Carolina have used gun raffles to raise money for their campaigns. And when his campaign held one in 2014, he said, “not one person brought it up as an issue.”

The sheriff also said that 90 percent of the people who buy such gun raffle tickets have received concealed carry permits from the state. That means, he said, that they’ve been vetted by the sheriff’s department, which has the responsibility locally of doing background checks.

“It’s not the law-abiding citizens – the ones with permits – who are out there committing these horrific crimes,” said Carmichael, who grew up on a dairy farm on Beatties Ford Road and, he added, lived in a family that “had shotguns, rifles, handguns.”

Ensley said he owns a gun, and McFadden said he has his service revolver from CMPD. Both said they support the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

But they said that many of the guns used in crimes are stolen from those with legal permits.

“The gun control I’m looking at is keeping guns from being stolen out of cars and houses,” McFadden said. “That’s a gun control we can work with.”

And while fund-raising raffles continue to give guns away, law enforcement in some violent cities are so eager to get guns off the streets that they buy them back – no questions asked – in order to get them off the streets.

“We have too many firearms in our country,” said Ensley. “We absolutely need tougher gun laws. And we should look at how other countries make their country safer.”

‘Lightning rods’

Gun raffles are not uncommon among Republican candidates looking to raise campaign funds.

What makes Carmichael’s use of them in the past and almost last week is that he’s a Democrat in Charlotte.

The city has become much more Democratic in recent years, and the party has moved to the left – especially in favor of gun control.

“With an increasingly urban tilt of the Democratic primary, Democrats have moved more forcibly in favor of gun control,” said Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at UNC Charlotte. “That’s a change from the past, when significant portions of rural areas were still Democratic.”

This year, not only gun control, but also another national issue – immigration – are becoming issues in the local sheriff’s race in Mecklenburg County.

Sheriff Carmichael favors a controversial program known as 287(g), which partners sheriff’s deputies with federal immigration officials. The program involved deporting undocumented immigrants at a time when the Democratic Party has become more welcoming of immigrants and more resistant to efforts by President Donald Trump and many GOP lawmakers to get tougher on the issue.

Both of Carmichael’s challengers oppose 287(g), with Ensley even branding Carmichael a Republican hiding behind a Democratic mask.

But Carmichael said he’s just enforcing the law, as he does with existing gun laws. And he added that he’ll enforce stricter gun control laws, too, if Congress ever enacts them.

Still, Heberlig said, these two “potential lightning rods” – guns and immigration – could leave Carmichael on the defense in his re-election battle.

‘Second Amendment celebrations’

Gun raffles have been become popular in Republican-leaning red states. Among GOP candidates, schools, even churches.

In North Carolina, Dr. Greg Brannon, a candidate in the 2016 GOP primary for a U.S. House seat, raffled off an AR-15 rifle to promote his campaign.

“Nothing says you support the Second Amendment like owning one of the finest AR-15 rifles on the market,” Brannon wrote “And it could be yours if you enter your name – right away.”

And in mostly Democratic Maryland, a Republican running for a legislative seat raffled off an AR-15 last Saturday, just days after the Florida shooting. The Baltimore Sun reported that about 15 people held a vigil outside the campaign event, reading off the names of the 17 Florida and other victims of mass shootings.

Even children and churches have become sponsors of gun raffles and giveaways.

In Missouri, a group of third-graders is going ahead with its raffle of an AR-15 rifle to raise money for their traveling baseball team.

And in 2014, the Kentucky Baptist Convention gave away firearms – handguns, long guns, shotguns – as door prizes at “Second Amendment Celebrations” in Baptist churches around that ruby-red state.

Carmichael said gun raffles can draw $20,000 or so for a candidate.

He plans to refund money to those who bought tickets for the raffle he canceled after the Florida shootings.

But he said some of those who bought tickets told him they still wanted to contribute to his campaign.

“We’ll refund it,” the sheriff said, “and then ask them to write another check.”