Matt Sessums was stopping at his local Walmart Supercenter in Oxford, Mississippi, on Saturday afternoon when he did a double take.
Outside both entrances of the store were tables set up to promote a raffle for a nearby church. The prizes? Two AR-15 rifles.
Tickets were $10 each or three for $20. Manning the tables, Sessums said, were two adults and three children, who looked to be around the same age as his 10-year-old daughter.
“I see this one little girl in particular, you know, pointing to the thing about the AR-15 raffle and getting people to buy tickets,” Sessums told The Washington Post. “It just kind of blew my mind that little kids were participating in something like that.”
Sessums texted his neighbor Kris Belden-Adams, who was already planning to go to Walmart to buy a birthday gift for one of her kids to take to a party. When she arrived, she was struck by the same sight.
“I had a kid approach me: ‘Would you like to join a raffle? We’ve got two AR-15s.’ And I’m like, whoa,” Belden-Adams said.
Just the Sunday before, a gunman had opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and wounding about 500. Inside the shooter’s suite at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, investigators discovered 23 guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Among those weapons were an AR-15-type rifle modified with a “bump stock,” a device that would allow the gunman to inflict damage more rapidly.
It hadn’t even been a week since the Vegas shooting, Belden-Adams thought.
“We have flags still half-mast for the Las Vegas shooting here in Oxford,” she said. “I thought it was in bad taste at this time to be auctioning an AR-15, the same weapon used in Las Vegas. Or one of them.”
When she got home, Belden-Adams looked up the raffle’s sponsor - the Oasis Church of All Nations - and sent them a message through Facebook expressing her concerns about the timing. According to posts on the church’s Facebook page, proceeds from the AR-15 raffle would go toward its Transformations Life Center, “a 12-month long drug discipleship program for those addicted.”
Just above an image of the weapon, the church also promoted its fall fish fry.
“All proceeds go toward the program to reach the hurting and broken of society,” a post read.
Belden-Adams wrote in her initial Facebook message to the church that she supported the cause but found the timing of the raffle concerning, given current events.
A man who identified himself as Danny Budd, director of the Transformation Life Center, soon responded.
“We understand your concern however, we’ve had a very positive response to the Ticket sell and no negative response,” Budd wrote to Belden-Adams, according to an image of the exchange. “We believe in the Second Amendment and the First Amendment. For some, there would never be a right time to raffle any fire arm. We respect your concern and message.”
Belden-Adams wrote back: “Dear Pastor Budd, I also respect your response and support of the Second Amendment, just as you respect my right to raise these concerns. Some of us who strongly support your philanthropic cause and religious views were alienated by the raffle’s political position (whether or not intended), and the use of children to approach people to sell raffle tickets to win AR-15s.”
She has not yet received a reply.
Neither Budd nor the Oasis Church responded to requests for comment Sunday afternoon.
It’s not the first time that a gun giveaway has drawn criticism for its timing. In June 2016, Tennessee state Rep. Andy Holt planned to give away an AR-15 as the door prize at one of his fundraisers - before a gunman opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, with an assault rifle, killing 49 people in what was then considered the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.
Despite calls to cancel his gun door prize, Holt doubled down, literally, by saying he would give away two AR-15s instead.
“I’m sick and tired of the media and liberal politicians attacking our right to keep and bear arms,” Holt wrote on Facebook then. “I’ll do everything I can to ensure the 2nd Amendment is protected and people are equipped to exercise their innate right to self-defense.”
And in July 2016, days after a gunman ambushed five Dallas police officers, killing them all with an AR-15 rifle, an Oregon pastor was surprised to see a local girls softball team raffling off the same type of weapon to raise money to travel to a tournament.
The Rev. Jeremy Lucas told The Washington Post then that he decided to spend $3,000 in church funds so he could win the raffle - and then have the rifle destroyed.
“If nothing else, I know that there is one AR-15 that will never be used to hurt anyone in law enforcement, a child in a classroom, people going to a holiday party, by a veteran experiencing PTSD to take their own life,” Lucas said. “This particular gun will never be used for that, and that’s worth a lot more than $3,000 to me.”
Oxford residents Ellen Foster and her husband, Bob Dalton, said they briefly considered doing something similar after spotting a poster for the AR-15 raffle at a different grocery store. Though they keep guns in their house and grew up hunting, they said the timing of the raffle, so soon after Vegas, was jarring to them.
“We thought about buying raffle tickets and turning the gun over to the ATF,” Foster told The Post, referring to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Ultimately, they said, they will buy tickets to the fish fry but not for the raffle.
There, Dalton plans to ask the ministry’s leadership why it couldn’t have raffled off something else in light of the tragedy in Las Vegas.
“I’ve seen most of my life where organizations will raffle off a hunting rifle or a shotgun, which is all really anybody needs. But this is kind of unusual,” Dalton said. “My guess is poor judgment. . . . Those types of weapons sell very well here. I understand why they did it. I wouldn’t have made that choice.”