SPRING HILL — Hernando County Commission Vice Chairman Steve Champion wanted to do something to help raise money for the annual Toys for Tots drive. So he donated the grand prize for the Nov. 18 raffle:
It was an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.
That led to a bit of a dustup.
Champion is "disappointed" that his donation has come under criticism.
"I think this is totally appropriate," he said. "It was a matter of inspiring adults to come out and give toys."
Ellen Ward, who has volunteered for the charity in the past, saw the flier with the Toys for Tots logo and a Facebook post advertising the "grand prize" and was not happy.
"It didn't sit well with me," she said. "The Toys for Tots organization is so strict about not even giving toy guns away, so this was just beyond me."
The national organization, Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, specifically bans raffling guns as a fundraiser. David Cooper, deputy vice president of operations for the charity in Triangle, Va., said there are two issues here:
"The first problem we had was the raffle of a weapon," Cooper said. "We do not support that."
The second issue was that it was unclear from social media which organization held the raffle, he said, the Marine Corps League* or Toys for Tots.
Ward contacted the national foundation on Dec. 1. Cooper then reached out to the Spring Hill chapter of Toys for Tots and its representative, Tony Akins, who said he apologized to the national headquarters.
"I made a mistake," Akins said. "I was trying to get kids toys."
Cooper said he told the Spring Hill organizers not to raffle off weapons in the future, and not to link any such effort to Toys for Tots. Cooper said his organization, which this year is running about 800 toy drives across the country, does not turn away people who want to help, but "we need to separate ourselves where the perception might be negative."
In fact, Cooper said, "If we are given toys that can be mistaken for real weapons, we do not distribute them."
Champion's business American Gun and Pawn donated the AR-15 rifle, which typically run from $600 to $2,500. The price of this rifle was not released.
He praised Toys for Tots but questioned its logic. The county commissioner pointed out that the rifle was offered not for a child, but for an adult, to raise money to buy toys for children.
The winner also passed a background check and was legally able to take ownership of the gun, he said.
A ticket for the grand prize was offered for each unopened toy brought to the Nov. 18 event. It netted more than 600 toys for local children, organizers said.
"They're doing a great thing, which they do out of the goodness of their hearts," Champion said. "I just don't understand why they would ever have a problem with this."
Ward said she didn't want to hurt the toy drive. But she also couldn't ignore the issue, either.
"It's a very good program,'' she said. "My concern is that we're headed in the wrong direction, and we need to take a look at this. … It's a very fine line, and I just couldn't turn my back on it. It's just a judgment issue."
Champion said this will have dire consequences for future Toys for Tots efforts in Hernando County. "This is not going to go over well. It will kill the program."
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*Editor's note: This article has been corrected to identify which organization held the raffle. An earlier version was incorrect.