At Gun Raffle, A Reminder Of Va. Tech

Virginia Citizens Defense League members Bruce Jackson, left, and Dennis O'Connor hand out tickets for the gun raffle in Fairfax County.
Virginia Citizens Defense League members Bruce Jackson, left, and Dennis O'Connor hand out tickets for the gun raffle in Fairfax County. (Photos By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 18, 2007

Peter Read stood at the door of Fairfax County's Mason District Governmental Center last night, his blue eyes intent and focused far away as he spoke. In his hands was a framed portrait of his daughter, Mary Karen, who was killed last month in the massacre at Virginia Tech.

Read, wearing a Virginia Tech cap and T-shirt, said he brought his daughter's photograph to a highly publicized gun raffle to remind people of what guns can do.

"My general reaction was my daughter and all other victims of gun violence needed to be remembered," Read, 44, of Annandale said of the 32 students and faculty members killed in the nation's deadliest mass shooting by an individual. His wife, Cathy, who was Mary Karen's stepmother, held his hand.

Thirty feet away stood Philip Van Cleave, his blue eyes just as intense as he explained his group's raffle. Van Cleave, who is president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said he sympathized with the Reads. But the problem on the campus -- and in the nation -- was not the guns but who used them, he said.

"Virginia Citizens Defense League fought hard to allow college students -- adult students, with permits -- to carry firearms on campus," Van Cleave said. "If just one of those adult students had been armed in that building, there would have been a much better chance that somebody would have stopped the madman."

Several hundred people gathered for the raffle last night. Before the meeting began, about 30 gun-control advocates milled with about as many people openly wearing handguns.

White balloons floated over protesters who held signs saying "Raffle life not death," "Thank you Mayor Bloomberg, a Virginia Mom" and "Try a bake sale instead." Nearby, a member of the gun group peeled off tickets for those who wanted to enter the lottery.

Earlier in the day, both sides had poured on the fire in an increasingly noisy showdown between New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Virginia's gun owners.

Hours before the raffle, which was held to protest Bloomberg's gun-control campaign, the mayor's top law enforcement adviser vowed to continue targeting Virginia dealers who make it easy for criminals to obtain guns used in crimes in the city.

"This isn't about gun control. This is about crime control," said John Feinblatt, the mayor's criminal justice coordinator. He said he would not hesitate to expand New York's campaign against dealers who look the other way on questionable transactions. "This is not about New York versus some other part of the country. We are just going to do what it takes to keep New Yorkers safe and keep our police safe."

The defense league had pledged to carry on its "Bloomberg gun giveaway" despite efforts by county officials to halt it. To get around a last-minute objection by county officials that the raffle violated gaming laws -- by involving an exchange of money or something of value for a chance to win a prize -- the group distributed the tickets at no cost and arranged to give away two additional weapons. Van Cleave said it plans to hold the lottery again after making changes to comply with the law. The winner must be qualified to own a firearm and undergo a background check before picking up the weapon from a licensed dealer.

The conflict began last year when New York City filed lawsuits targeting 27 dealers in five states, including Virginia. The lawsuit accused the dealers of engaging in straw purchases, in which a buyer who is entitled to obtain a firearm purchases the weapon and gives it to someone who is disqualified by law from owning guns. Gun owners rallied around the shops named in the New York lawsuit. Two stores have gone out of business, two settled the litigation and one is being defended by its insurer. The defense league raised $10,000 for two shops still battling the suit: Bob Moates Sport Shop near Richmond and Old Dominion Guns & Tackle Inc. in Danville.

The group, which formed in Fairfax in the mid-1990s and meets there monthly, designed the raffle to drive business to the two stores. For every $100 spent on merchandise at the shops, a customer received a ticket for a chance to win a $1,000 firearm or other items. About 2,500 tickets were given out.

A festival atmosphere reigned in the government center last night when it came time for the drawing. The room, whose capacity is 150, was so full that people outside crowded around open windows to listen.

Van Cleave acted as master of ceremonies in front of tables displaying one of the two prize firearms: a .45-caliber Para Ordnance PX745E semiautomatic handgun. He also unveiled a cake with a picture of Bloomberg in the frosting, saying: "These are sick people!"

Van Cleave, saying his group includes many retired military personnel and law enforcement officers, said he was glad to be in their company. They hung signs calling for the mayor's prosecution for sending agents to stores posing as legitimate buyers.

"We're sending a message to New York, and this message is going to Mr. Bloomberg: If you think you have a problem, if you think Virginia's gun dealers are violating the law . . . come talk to the state police," Van Cleave said. "Guns in the hands of decent, law-abiding citizens is a good thing. In my opinion, you can't have too many kinds of those guns."

"Amen!" someone shouted.

After several others spoke, a small white bucket with the tickets was given a shake, and Dave Vann, a retired D.C. police officer who lives in the Falls Church section of Fairfax County, reached in to draw a ticket.

The crowd cheered when Jay Minsky, a Brooklyn native who lives in Fairfax, claimed the winning ticket and the pistol that went with it.

Asked what message he wanted to send to Bloomberg, he put one hand on his bicep and jerked his arm up with a fist in a schoolyard taunt known in any New York borough and beyond.

"Keep out of Virginia!" Minsky said, as the crowd hooted.

The second gun went to Stephan Mayr, 48, of Arlington, who said he was not sure what a varmint rifle was. He said he hunts deer, groundhogs, squirrels and snapping turtles.

Before the drawing, Van Cleave told the crowd to keep the ticket stubs because it was possible that one of the winners might not qualify to possess the gun and it might have to go to a runner-up. Also, he said, he wanted everyone to mail them to Bloomberg.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company