POLITICS
09/12/2011 06:18 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2011

Arizona Gun Raffle: Reactions Reveal Power Struggle Amongst Pima County Republicans

Congratulations are in order to the Pima County Republican Party in Arizona. To raise money for get-out-the-vote efforts, they have successfully raffled off not one but two guns - a deer rifle and a Glock pistol. In doing so they also caused a bit of a national uproar. Mike Shaw, until recently the interim chair of the PCRP, claims the vitriolic backlash came as a surprise - that they hadn't expected it. However, this jars sharply with other statements made to the press by other members of the PCRP Executive Committee.

After HuffPost's Off the Bus broke the story, people were outraged because the gun in question, a Glock 23, is markedly similar - and visually identical - to the Glock 19 used back in January by Jared Lee Loughner when, in Tucson, he shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head, killed six people, and wounded 12 others.

On Sept. 1, Shaw told Tucson's KVOA-TV, "I've actually been surprised by the reaction" and denied that the choice of raffle item was insensitive. The next day he told the Arizona Daily Star, "I didn't expect this reaction." The New York Times quoted him as saying, "Had I known the reaction was going to be this strong, I would have taken that into consideration ... But we've done handgun raffles in the past and we'll do them in the future. We're not trying to offend anyone."

And yet people were offended -- people like like Col. Bill Badger (Ret.) and Nancy Bowman, survivors of the Tucson shooting. Regardless of whether a public figure intends to offend, what is the calculation involved when he moves forward knowing something will offend? What kind of people would intentionally take advantage of a tragedy like the Tucson shooting to make some headlines and a quick buck?

"I knew exactly what [the raffle] would do," claimed PCRP executive committee member Mike Ebert. Speaking to the Arizona Daily Star, he said, "Anytime you want to challenge 1st and 2nd Amendment rights, it's going to get conservatives off their butts."

Meanwhile, another committee member, James Kelley, told the Arizona Republic, "Let's make this perfectly clear: I advised against this raffle from day one." He said he called the raffle stupid and insensitive, and strongly advised against it.

So how can it be that Shaw was "surprised" by the "unexpected" reaction to the raffle, when just such a reaction had been discussed amongst the PCRP executive committee? If they didn't intend to outrage or offend anyone - then why, in the context of the backlash, would Ebert claim that he knew "exactly" what would happen? Taken separately, these comments reflect standard party infighting and insensitivity. But put them together and a more cynical picture begins to form.

Many considered the raffling of a Glock in Tucson less than nine months after the Tucson shooting to be tacky at best. The raffle was described - even by many Republicans - in such terms as "stunningly insensitive" and "incredibly stupid," and on his show Countdown Keith Olbermann referred to Shaw as a "human-shaped pile of feces."

Shaw and his supporters justified the raffle, saying that the gun was just left over from a similar fundraiser held last year. But former PCRP chair Brian Miller, who was in charge last time, said that given the Tucson shootings of Gabriel Giffords and all the others, he wouldn't have done it again this year. "There's a woman who has a bullet in the brain and who everybody is wishing a full recovery," Miller told Talking Points Memo. "I don't think that raffling off a firearm right now is probably the right way to go."

Miller is the former chair of the party because he was forced out earlier this year for, interestingly enough, firearm-related issues. In May, a SWAT team stormed into the house of ex-Marine Jose Guerena in what police said was a drug sting. Guerena told his wife and 4 year old son to hide in a closet, while he confronted what he thought were home invaders with his AR-15 rifle. The SWAT team fired 71 rounds at Guerena. He was hit 23 times. He never even took the safety off the rifle.

At the time, Miller sent out a widely circulated e-mail entitled "We Are All Jose Guerena," calling for an examination of "the policies that routinely lead to heavily armed and militarized local police invading private homes." Almost immediately, his fellow Republicans voted him out of office, ostensibly for inciting "distrust of Pima County law enforcement agencies." Yet another casualty of the nationwide Tea-Partification of the GOP, Miller berated the "my way or the highway" wing of the party that ousted him - people like Shaw, for example, who initially became involved in the PCRP through Tea Party activism. "They aren't exactly known for their ability to feel the political pulse," Miller told TPM. "Politically, it's kind of a silly thing to do."

Meanwhile, in a HuffPost exclusive for Off the Bus, Kelley expanded on his prior statements. He claims that the PCRP executive committee discussed having "no more gun raffles" as far back as January, "shortly after the [Tucson] shooting." And in July, when Pima County Sheriff candidate Chester Manning held a "Shoot With the New Sheriff" picnic (inviting participants to "Enjoy a picnic lunch and shoot full-auto machine guns and sub-machine guns") Kelley says he warned that it was a bad idea and would embarrass the party.

"Manning stood on his principles and the 2nd Amendment," says Kelley. "I said, 'Stand on the 2nd Amendment all you want. I'm just saying you will not have anyone from the party come to your support when the backlash comes at you." Kelley went so far as to allege that Shaw, along with PCRP Executive Director Greg Harris, made the decision to raffle the Glock "to prove me wrong and show 'support' to Chester Manning."

Repeated requests for comments from the PCRP, and specifically Shaw, Harris and Ebert, were not answered; nor was the offer to let them respond to Kelley's allegations. Kelley remains Legislative District 29 chairman for the PCRP and a voting member of the Executive Committee.

"Mike Shaw should have expected the backlash," said Kelley. "I told him there would be one. But Greg [Harris] had already put together his talking points for Mike should anyone complain because that is what they spit out immediately."

What's all this about discussing gun raffles repeatedly since January? How could Shaw be surprised by the very backlash he was told to expect? How can you have talking points prepared in advance for an unexpected surprise? Why would Ebert move forward with a plan he apparently knew would stir up controversy and re-open wounds in Tucson that haven't had time to heal - literally as well as figuratively?

On his blog, The Cholla Jumps, Kelley offers one theory that sums everything up nicely:

"What does the one party that has the answers and the candidates to solve the problems do? It holds a gun raffle against the advice of it's [sic] own members of the executive committee because the Pima GOP is so broke it has less than one month worth of operating revenue left in the kitty and the Executive Director wanted to make sure his pay check would cash next week."

Alex Brant-Zawadzki is a contributor to The Huffington Post's citizen journalism program OfftheBus. If you would like to contribute to OfftheBus 2012 coverage of the campaign season, sign up at offthebus.org.