Republican Senate candidate says AR-15 raffle involved 'a lot of due diligence'
By Will Schmitt
A Republican candidate for one of Missouri's U.S. Senate seats says he personally spoke with the winner of his campaign's rifle raffle before awarding an AR-15 to a stranger in a tiny town in Georgia.
Austin Petersen, a former Libertarian contender now running for the GOP nomination to face Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent, told the News-Leader on Friday his campaign complied with "all the federal and local laws" in giving away the rifle on Halloween.
About 5,000 people signed up, and the winner was a man in Sharpsburg, Georgia, Petersen said.
Beyond complying with the law and conducting the transaction through a federally licensed firearms dealer — a process involving a background check — "we also did a lot of due diligence on our own to make sure he was going to be a responsible gentleman," Petersen said.
This included checking the winner's social media accounts and a personal call from Petersen. "I just wanted to make sure that he was on the up and up."
Joshua Romine, a 38-year-old flight instructor, is the winner. He said he supported Petersen's campaign for the 2016 Libertarian nomination and isn't bothered that the candidate is now running as a Republican.
"I am more concerned about liberty-minded individuals than the letter after their name," Romine said.
Romine had forgotten about the raffle until Petersen called him last fall to let him know he won the rifle, a Palmetto State Armory AR-15. Even then, he thought the candidate was calling to follow up on a prior donation.
"He was very personable and everyone in his staff was great during the process of sending the rifle," Romine said. "I hope the people of Missouri will vote for him over the establishment GOP candidate."
As for the rifle, Romine said it "works great."
"I put a set of sights on it and zeroed it," he said. "It is in the safe, nice and clean, right now."
On Tuesday, a Kansas congressional candidate announced a similar giveaway. A day later, a similar weapon was used in Florida to kill 17 people at a high school. The backlash that followed was immediate, propelling the Kansas giveaway to national prominence amid the ongoing debate about guns and whether to enact restrictions on firearms sales and ownership.
Asked about his own AR-15 giveaway and response to the Florida shooting, Petersen said he "absolutely feel(s) sympathy for the victims' families."
"Good faith arguments are going to be made on both sides" of the gun debate, Petersen said, but "(the Florida shooting) wasn't a failure of the law. This was a failure of law enforcement agencies."
Petersen noted that the FBI received a tip last month related to the shooter but did not act. He also pointed out that the shooter had been contacted by local law enforcement numerous times, as the Associated Press has reported.
It was initially reported by the Associated Press that the Florida shooter was involved with a white nationalist group, though the AP has since reported that this appears to have been a lie. In an interview with the News-Leader, Petersen attempted to head off criticism on that front, saying he has fought against the spread of conspiracy theories and "castigated the alt-right," referencing a far-right branch of politics that often embraces racism and populism.
"I've actually been one of the biggest combatants of extremism in the liberty movement," Petersen said.
Before the rifle was awarded, the raffle had a hiccup.
Petersen has said Facebook banned him for 30 days due to a post he made in connection with the raffle, the News-Leader previously reported. He's a Second Amendment supporter and was explaining his policy differences with McCaskill on the issue in a live Facebook video.
Petersen said the video was removed and his account was blocked for a month as a result.
"We did not violate Facebook's terms of service," Petersen said, and "they backed off and blamed it on their algorithm, instead of direct censorship."
Petersen also noted that Facebook's chief operating officer has contributed several thousand dollars to McCaskill's campaign.