Corey A. Stewart, who is vying for the Republican nomination for Virginia governor, followed through on a pledge Wednesday and gave away an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to a supporter who participated in a drawing run by his campaign.
In case the message behind the event wasn’t obvious, Rick Thompson — the winner of the drawing — showed up to a Woodbridge gun store to collect his prize wearing a National Rifle Association baseball cap, a “Gulf War Veteran” jacket and a shirt decorated with American flags.
“It’s a nice weapon,” said Thompson, a former Navy aviation mechanic from Woodbridge, as he gripped the sleek, black rifle similar to the ones used in several deadly mass shootings — including last year’s nightclub shooting in Orlando that killed 49 people, the 2015 San Bernardino massacre that left 14 dead and the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., that killed 12.
“I saw the raffle and I said, ‘Oh, that might be fun to try out,’ ” said Thompson, 60, calling himself an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. “And, I got lucky and won.”
For Stewart, who chairs the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, the gun giveaway met several objectives.
First, the drawing — which launched last month and attracted 3,000 participants — underscored his plans to tap into frustrations in Virginia over what Stewart characterized as attacks on the rights of gun owners. Among them: restrictions against carrying a weapon inside government buildings and a $50 filing fee for a concealed handgun permit that he argues should be eliminated.
The drawing also helped Stewart’s campaign raise $10,000 — money he will need to beat Republican front-runner Ed Gillespie and edge out state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) and Nelson County businessman Denver Riggleman for the party’s primary on June 13.
Finally, the use of the .223-caliber rifle that gun-control groups have tried to ban after the recent mass shootings symbolizes the in-your-face style that Stewart, the former chair of President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign in Virginia, plans to use as he pushes for looser gun restrictions, more job-creation programs and a statewide crackdown on illegal immigration.
“Sure, it’s a stunt; what’s wrong with that?” Stewart said, before the presentation, adding that he knew the use of an AR-15 rifle would spark some controversy. “I’ve always been very aggressive, brutally honest and willing to stand up for conservative causes, even when it’s unpopular.”
The AR-15 is similar to the Bushmaster XM15, which was used in 2002 by the Beltway sniper, who killed 10 people around the D.C. region, including Dean Harold Meyers, a 53-year-old civil engineer shot dead while pumping gasoline at a gas station in Prince William County.
About promoting a weapon used in mass shootings, Stewart argued that those victims would have been safer if there were gun carriers around.
“Who do terrorists and criminals target?” he said. “These mass shootings always occur in areas where the shooter knows that they’re not going to be confronted by another gunman. The more people that do carry weapons for self-defense and the defense of others, the safer we’ll all be.”
Manufactured by a handful of different weapons makers, the ArmaLite rifle has become increasingly popular among gun enthusiasts, largely because it is accurate up to about 500 yards. It has a light weight and minimal recoil, making it easier to shoot as many as 30 rounds as quickly as one can pull its trigger.
Similar in design to the M-16 military assault rifle, the high-velocity AR-15 is also featured regularly on TV shows and video games and has lately been promoted for hunting — making it the pedestrian gun owner’s rifle with prices starting at about $649.
“It’s the Honda of the gun industry — it’s the most common,” said Walter Kitchens, manager of the All Shooters Tactical gun shop in Woodbridge that hosted Stewart’s giveaway.
“If it weren’t for the legislative actions to remove that gun from people’s hands, it wouldn’t sell that great,” Kitchens said, estimating his store sells at least one AR-15 rifle per day.
Stewart’s Republican opponents steered away from criticizing him for promoting the rifle.
A spokesman for Gillespie declined to comment, while Wagner did not return phone calls for comment.
Riggleman called the event “bizarre.”
“I don’t understand the motive,” he said, adding that he nonetheless supports less restrictions on guns. “It’s a bizarre political event to give away a weapon to introduce more Facebook followers or more people to follow you on social media.”
The two Democrats vying for the governor’s seat were less reserved.
“As a doctor in the Army and a pediatric neurologist, I have witnessed the consequences of gun violence firsthand,” Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam said. “To use these weapons to fund a political campaign is inappropriate and shows that Corey Stewart does not approach the issue of gun violence with seriousness or sobriety.”
A spokeswoman for former U.S. representative Tom Perriello said Stewart’s event “ends up making responsible gun owners look bad.”
“Tom has fought hard for common-sense gun reform and also defended the right for responsible citizens to bear arms, and the headlines Mr. Stewart generates will undermine both,” the spokeswoman, Jessica Barba Brown, said.
Stewart said the drawing was conducted responsibly.
His campaign made sure Thompson underwent a thorough background check before it awarded the weapon to him, he said. Thompson said he intends to use the rifle for target shooting.
“He’s a law-abiding citizen. He’s not a felon, and that made him able to obtain a weapon,” Stewart said, smiling at the bank of TV cameras crowded inside the tiny gun store to film the event.