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Havre de Grace officials debate appropriateness of Susquehanna Hose fire company’s AR-15 gun raffles

One member of the Havre de Grace City Council expressed concern about plans by a local firehouse to raffle two AR-15 semi-automatic rifles for a fundraiser, while another council member came to the company’s defense this week.

“My intention is not to bring criticism to any person or organization, but to shine a light on those in our community who have expressed concern about this decision, along with the message it sends, and to give voice to those concerns,” Councilwoman Carolyn Zinner said during Monday’s council meeting.

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Division 2, one of five Susquehanna Hose Company firehouses in Havre de Grace, is selling raffle tickets for chances to win two AR-15 rifles, provided by Windham Weaponry, as well as rounds of 5.56-caliber ammunition — 150 rounds can be won with one rifle and 100 rounds with the second firearm. The drawing is scheduled for March 26. The company was originally raffling just one of the firearms, but because of the popularity of the fundraiser, decided to offer a second.

Zinner suggested, as an alternative to raffling off AR-15s, that the fire company promote its “stellar” emergency response times or its top-level Class 2 Insurance Services Office rating. She also suggested raffling a “high-end sports rifle” or another sports-related item that reflects Havre de Grace’s heritage of hunting, rather than “select an instrument mostly associated as the weapon of choice in active shooter tragedies.”

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“If a gun raffle was truly the best and only answer, can we not tie it to our shared heritage and our hunting traditions to enhance our message of inclusion, gun safety and hunting?” Zinner asked.

Councilman James Ringsaker, who is a hunter, defended the raffle and the AR-15 itself, noting the rifles “suffer from bad PR — that’s the issue.”

“Everybody says that they’re only used for killing and only used for school shootings and everything else,” Ringsaker said. “The preferred weapon for school shootings actually is a handgun.”

While handguns are more commonly used in violent incidents, versions of the AR-15 rifle have been used in many high-profile mass shootings in recent years, such as those at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018, during a country music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 and at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019.

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Ringsaker noted that the AR-15 is considered a sports rifle and can be used for hunting in Maryland, as state law allows using rifles that shoot “straight-walled cartridges,” in addition to shotguns, to hunt deer. Ringsaker and his son recently took several deer using an AR-15.

The AR in AR-15 does not stand for “assault rifle,” but for the Armalite company that developed the firearm, Ringsaker said. The AR-15 dates back to the 1950s, when Armalite was developing the M-16 rifle for the U.S. military, as well as the AR as a sporting-style rifle for civilian use, according to the website of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms industry.

“It’s not a military rifle,” he said. “There is no military in the world that uses an AR-15, none.”

This is the first time that the firehouse has raffled off a firearm to raise money. The all-volunteer Hose Company has faced challenges with fundraising during the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic makes it difficult to hold community events.

Harford County’s 12 volunteer fire and EMS companies receive funding each year from the county government, as well as from municipalities and through ambulance billing, but they also depend on financial support from the communities they serve. Joe Miller, president of the Susquehanna Hose Company, told The Aegis last month that donations help the organization fund purchases of new vehicles to replace aging apparatus.

Zinner went out of her way to express support for the Hose Company, noting that it “goes beyond commendable” that the volunteer members are willing to put their lives on the line to fight fires and rescue people. She also highlighted the city council’s commitment to public safety, citing its recent approval of a $30,100 budget amendment to support the fire company’s purchase of underwater rescue equipment, as well as members urging the public to contact state legislators and express their opposition to bills under consideration that would curtail funding for school resource officers.

“I have no doubt that every law has been followed — every ‘i’ has been dotted and ‘t’ crossed to bring this raffle to fruition — but I’m saddened, as are others in the community, that this was deemed the best option,” Zinner said.

Ringsaker stressed that the Susquehanna Hose Company’s raffle is happening within the state’s “very restrictive” gun laws, passed by the General Assembly in 2013. He did acknowledge the optics of raffling off a firearm, though.

“If I were on the board, I probably wouldn’t have done that, because I agree the optics can be damaging,” Ringsaker said. “However, I fully support their right to have a legal raffle, to raffle what they want to, a firearm that I would have pleasure in owning myself if I were to win. I wish them the best of luck.”

Resident James Miller, who said he is an active 45-year member of the fire company, also defended the raffle during the portion of the meeting reserved for citizen comments on city business. He noted that he is not a gun owner, but stressed that the company is following all applicable laws for the raffle.

“If you want to make a donation, and you don’t like the gun, maybe you can win it and then you can destroy it like other people have done,” Miller said.

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