By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Barely a week after the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history, state Sen. Greg Evers — running in a hotly contested Republican primary for a Panhandle congressional seat — drew criticism for planning to give away a semiautomatic rifle similar to a gun used in the attack that killed 49 people and injured dozens of others at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Evers, a Baker Republican who has frequently sponsored legislation backed by the National Rifle Association, announced Monday he is giving away an AR-15 rifle to a resident of Congressional District 1 who has “liked” and “shared” Evers’ Facebook page. Killer Omar Mateen used a similar gun during the deadly assault early June 12 on the Pulse nightclub.
“With terrorism incidents on the rise, both at home and abroad, protecting our constitutional rights has never been more important,” Evers said in a prepared statement accompanying the announcement.
The winner of the “custom-built” rifle will be selected on July 4, with the contestant having to meet eligibility requirements, according to a press release and a post on Evers’ Facebook page.
But LGBT activists decried Evers’s decision to essentially raffle off the gun while funerals for the 49 clubgoers — most of them gay and Hispanic — have just begun.
“I think it is tasteless, disrespectful, disgusting, political pandering at its worst,” Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of Equality Florida, an LGBT advocacy group that has raised more than $6 million for victims of the massacre. “The idea that he wants to put the same style assault rifle that was just used for mass murder into the hands of a random stranger is grotesque.”
Evers is running to replace veteran U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller — who announced earlier this year he will not seek re-election — in what is expected to be a brutal campaign against state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and James Zumwalt, an Iraq war veteran and former Miller aide.
Evers made his announcement the day before U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch is scheduled to travel to Orlando to meet with victims, first responders and other members of the Orlando community reeling from the attack on the popular nightclub in the wee hours of a Sunday morning.
Critics view Evers’ gun giveaway as a way for him to beef up support from Second Amendment backers in arguably the state’s most conservative congressional district, which abuts the Alabama border and spans Escambia, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties and includes most of Holmes County. The winner of the Aug. 30 GOP primary is almost certain to go to Washington.
“Sen. Evers’s campaign gimmick will improve self-defense for exactly one Floridian. I’ve spent a legislative career fighting for Second Amendment rights for all Floridians,” Gaetz said in a telephone interview Monday.
Evers’s gun contest comes as some, including President Barack Obama, push lawmakers to consider imposing restrictions on the purchase of assault weapons like the one used by the shooter in the Orlando massacre.
Evers defended his AR-15 contest by accusing Obama of blaming the Orlando catastrophe on guns, “when the real threat is radical Islamic terrorism.”
“Where I’m from, people ain’t gonna sit around and wait for the government to protect them, they’ll protect themselves. That’s what this is about — promoting self-reliance in the face of Islamic terrorism,” Evers said in an e-mail.
But Liz Watkins called Evers’s campaign ploy an insult, especially in Pensacola, which has courted the LGBT community and draws thousands of gay tourists each Memorial Day weekend for a major gay pride celebration.
“I think it’s criminal,” Watkins, a Pensacola LGBT activist, said. “I think he is contributing to the death of people. If he isn’t stopped by the law somehow, then Republicans need to look in this guy’s face and say you need to think about what you’re doing. … I’ve got to tell you my stomach’s turning from it.”
Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said her group is “outraged” by Evers’s announcement.
“We do not believe that actions like that can solve the issue at hand. We need to be having discourse and conversation and action with the people of all sides weighing in on this issue,” Goodman said in a telephone conference call with reporters on Monday.
But as offensive as Evers’s giveaway might be to some, others believe it won’t hurt him in a primary where candidates are eager to flaunt their allegiance to gun rights.
“There’s a decent chance that whoever gets (the rifle), it will be their second AR-15,” said GOP strategist J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, who splits his time between Tallahassee and Destin, which is included in the congressional district. “There’s a cultural and political divide here that’s hard for some folks to understand. What happened in Orlando, a number of people, including many people in the Panhandle, believe that is an alarm bell, a summons to arm yourself against the coming darkness, the bad guys who are out to get us.”
GOP strategist Rick Wilson predicted Evers’s gun maneuver likely won’t have any impact at all.
“Nobody gives a s— about gun control. No one. Ever. Except liberal Democrats,” Wilson said. “Nobody in that district cares about moral posturing and moral panic. … They parse criticism of that. It’s kind of a no-lose situation for Republicans to stand up for the Second Amendment in that district. It is not squishy at all.”