The United Way's mission statement is pretty straightforward: It "improves lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities around the world to advance the common good."
So how does that square with the decision by a New Mexico affiliate to raise money with a yearlong raffle of 108 sniper and assault rifles and other firearms?
For gun violence activists in New Mexico, the answer is that it doesn't. "There's no way that putting 100 firearms into communities ravaged by violence advances the common good," says Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence.
Earlier this month, Viscoli alerted the international headquarters of United Way Worldwide by email to the raffle plans of the philanthropy's affiliate in Otero County, on the New Mexico-Texas border. To give credit to the United Way brass, they instantaneously freaked out. Viscoli says she heard back the same day from a charity official, telling her that the United Way would be making a very aggressive response to the Otero affiliate.
A letter went out that very day from United Way general counsel Patricia J. Turner to the affiliate's director, Linda Elliott, crisply informing her that the firearms raffle violated the United Way trademark license agreement and United Way bylaws, which bar activities involving firearms, alcohol, tobacco, adult entertainment or gambling.
"The raffle and distribution of over 108 firearms into the community would violate this clause," Turner wrote, "given the implications of firearms on community safety and the negative impact on the United Way brand." She ordered Otero to "cease and desist" with the raffle "and take down any [and] all websites, flyers, or other communications" tying the raffle to the United Way, on pain of having its United Way membership terminated.
A day later, United Way Worldwide's chief of staff, Brian LaChance, emailed Viscoli to say that the Otero County UW had removed all references to the raffle from its website. He added: "We are still following up to ensure the event is not happening at all."
Yet, it is happening. The raffle details, including a list of the prize guns, are back up on the affiliate website. The raffle resumed on Aug.17, when the affiliate's president, Josh Beug, said that while some of the marketing of the raffle had been changed after discussions with UW Worldwide, "the rules will stay the same, the prizes will stay the same and all tickets that have been sold will be honored." The Otero County affiliate didn't respond to my requests for comment.
United Way Worldwide seems to be trying to have things both ways. In a statement issued Friday from its Alexandria, Va., headquarters, the organization reiterated to me that "in accordance with United Way Worldwide's membership trademark license agreement, the organization does not permit the distribution of firearms in conjunction with the United Way trademark." But it added that "in light of the current situation with United Way of Otero County, we are actively working to further clarify the membership agreement around this issue. This continues to be an internal discussion about membership guidelines between United Way Worldwide and the local member organizations."
The United Way has tried to tamp down criticism by attempting to sweep the gun raffle under the rug. In a Huffington Post item co-written by Viscoli and Valerie Plame Wilson, a former CIA official and a New Mexico resident, they said they had been pressured by the organization "not to talk to the press about this event."
Among the questions raised by all this is why United Way headquarters has backed down. But the main question is one for the United Way of Otero County: What in heaven's name are they thinking?
Viscoli observes that New Mexico ranks as one of the most violence-prone states in the union. It was ranked third in the nation by the Violence Policy Center in the 2013 rate of homicides of women by men; of the 19 cases in which the weapon could be identified, 11 involved guns.
Among the prizes are Bushmaster AR-15s. Those are assault-type rifles similar to the Bushmaster weapon owned by Adam Lanza when he launched his 2012 killing rampage in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children ages 6 and 7 and six adults were massacred. Another is the Barrett M95 .50 BMG rifle. That's a sniper's weapon.
According to the raffle rules posted by the Otero County United Way, purchasers of the $50 tickets must be at least 21 and legally eligible to receive and possess firearms in New Mexico. That implies they'll have to go through a background check when they present a winning ticket voucher at the Alamogordo gun and hardware store co-sponsoring the event.
But that's cold comfort. Viscoli points out that some of the prizes are high-value weapons — the Bushmaster retails for more than $600 and the Barrett M95 for $6,600-$9,000. Nothing would stop a raffle winner from monetizing his good fortune by selling his prize privately or at a gun show. In New Mexico, private and gun show sellers aren't required to do background checks of their buyers.
The United Way may be hoping that this controversy passes, but it should be held to the highest standards. The prospect that it might be embarrassed by publicity about a licensed affiliate raffling guns is the least of its problems. The consequences of releasing more than 100 firearms into the New Mexico community for a ticket price of $50 each should have United Way officials absolutely terrified. If they really lived up to their mission statement, they would have quashed this fundraiser and kept it quashed for good.