A State Assembly bill to ban charity gun raffles is not scheduled for a vote and lacks a Senate companion bill. Yet local gun owners say they are still alarmed by what they see as an all-out assault on their right to own weapons.
“I think it stinks,” said Mark E. Fraunfelder, an East Aurora firefighter, at a Saturday gun raffle in Elma. “It’s a great way to raise money, and they’re trying to take it away from us. All the different laws they’ve passed – they’re just trying to take our guns.”
“The governor is just running roughshod over the whole state," echoed fellow attendee Ken King. "He just gets whatever he wants now. … Once the Republicans lost the Senate, he’s got no one challenging him.”
These are anxious times for many gun owners in New York State, who say they feel besieged by a ream of new and wide-ranging gun control laws. Since Democrats took control of the State Legislature in the November elections, they have passed bills banning bump stocks, lengthening background check waiting times and requiring gun owners with young children to lock up their firearms.
Some 160 other gun control bills also have been introduced this session, including one proposal by Brooklyn Assemblywoman Joanne Simon that would prohibit gun raffles like one held Saturday at Jamison Road Volunteer Fire Company. The organization has held this particular fundraiser twice a year for the past 15 years, said Fire Chief Brian Nolan, and currently makes about $32,000 each year from it.
The bill has angered Nolan and other Jamison Road supporters, who see it as downstate meddling in their finances. And it has heightened some local gun owners’ perception that their rights are under attack.
"They’re punishing law-abiding citizens," said Mike Williams of East Aurora. "You do everything right and they still take it away from you. Criminals don’t follow the law."
Among other issues, Nolan said, some politicians don’t appear to understand what a gun raffle is. While the fundraisers award guns as prizes, winners can’t leave with their new firearm until they’ve passed the same federal background check given by sporting goods stores and other dealers.
Jamison Road also only raffles off rifles and shotguns, plus a few pistols and crossbows. Two of those rifles were AR-15s, which some critics classify as assault weapons.
The fire company makes one-tenth of its total annual budget from the fundraiser, Nolan said. The rest is funded by the Town of Elma, which would also pick up the fundraising shortfall if raffles were banned.
“I’d like to see more education and communication,” said raffle attendee Dave Caradori. “Some people have the impression that this is a marathon gun giveaway, and that’s just not the case.”
As Caradoni spoke, winter sun streamed into the fire hall’s garage, lighting on long rows of tables loaded with snacks and packed elbow-to-elbow with chattering people. Some sloshed Budweiser out of branded blue pitchers. Others waved sheaves of one-dollar bills at the young men and women selling tickets.
Before the fire company began drawing numbers, Assemblyman David DiPietro, R-East Aurora, led a prayer imploring God to “open” state lawmakers’ eyes and “let them know what we do is right and just.”
Chief Nolan also urged attendees to sign petitions protesting Simon’s “destructive legislation.”
Each successive winner then headed to Nolan’s office to complete a 2½-page background check. Gun dealer Kevin Pontlitz coached Tim Wrobel, the winner of a Winchester rifle, through the process.
“If you have a middle name, you need to include that,” Pontlitz said. “Your whole middle name. Spelled out.”
After Wrobel completed the form, Pontlitz uploaded it to the federal background-check site, which provides approval or rejection in as little as two minutes.
“I own my guns and they want to take them away," said Wrobel, who attends the raffle every spring and fall. "They’re going to have to pry them from my cold, dead fingers.”
Despite gun owners’ defiance, however, political reality stands against them. Tom King, the executive director of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, said overwhelming Democratic majorities in the state Assembly and Senate make it more likely that more gun control measures, like the raffle ban, will advance.
Already this session, Democrats passed bills to prohibit teachers from carrying guns in schools and to extend the waiting period to 30 days when a prospective gun owner doesn’t pass an instant background check. In late February, Gov. Andrew Cuomo also signed a so-called “red flag” law designed to prevent mentally ill people from using or obtaining firearms. The law allows school officials, police officers and family members to apply to the court system for a “temporary extreme risk protection order,” which bans at-risk individuals from buying guns and allows police to confiscate their existing weapons.
Gun control groups cheered both laws.
"We are grateful for the progress that we have made in New York during 2019 and commend New York's lawmakers for passing legislation that will save lives,” said Rebecca Fischer, the executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.
In addition to the gun control measures that passed earlier this year, King anticipates a concerted push around bills that would require gun owners to hold individual liability insurance and ban certain types of military-grade ammunition.
Democrats have also proposed funding a new “firearm violence research institute,” changing the pistol permitting process to include a review of the applicant’s social media accounts and banning marksmanship programs at public schools – which drew sharp condemnation from Saturday's emcee at Jamison.
“Right now, the anti-gun plank of the Democratic platform has become universal,” King said. “Look what’s going on in California, Washington, Massachusetts, New Jersey – wherever Democrats have taken over, the very first things they go after are the firearms.”
But local gun-rights advocates say they will continue to voice their concerns in Albany, no matter the political dynamics. Nolan will mail his petitions to Assemblywoman Simon this week, he said, and the Rifle and Pistol Association has mounted social media campaigns against the pending legislation.
Down the street from Saturday's raffle, two protesters who gave their names only as John and Jen also blasted the national anthem from a wireless speaker while waving signs against both the 2013 SAFE Act and the prospective gun raffle ban.
John, dressed in camouflage fatigues, a woven straw hat and tinted yellow glasses, said he felt tempted to move to a state with fewer gun laws – “but chose to stay and fight instead.”
“There are a lot of people being hurt by these laws in the state of New York," he said. "Frankly, it makes me sick."
Passing pickups, some driving from the direction of the fire hall, laid on their horns in endorsement.