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AR-15 raffle video puts Illinois Republican in hot seat after parade shooting

Darren Bailey raffled off a Smith & Wesson AR-15 — nearly identical to the type used in this week's Highland Park parade massacre — as part of a 2019 campaign fundraising event.
Image: Darren Bailey, a farmer and the front-runner in the Republican primary for governor of Illinois, in a corn field in Green Valley, Ill., June 20, 2022.
Darren Bailey, a farmer and the front-runner in the Republican primary for governor of Illinois, in a cornfield in Green Valley, Ill., on June 20. Jamie Kelter Davis / The New York Times / Redux

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — The Republican nominee for governor of Illinois, Darren Bailey, once held a campaign fundraising event at which he raffled off a Smith & Wesson AR-15, a weapon nearly identical to the type used in the Fourth of July parade massacre here this week.

A 2019 video posted to Bailey’s campaign page on Facebook shows him standing before a raffle drum to pick the winner when he was a state representative.

“As promised, we have held a raffle for an AR-15, a Smith & Wesson, and I have possession of that,” he says on the video.

Bailey, who’s now a state senator, has held numerous raffles for guns over the years.

The raffle imagery, as well as Bailey’s longtime embrace of bills to expand and protect gun rights, is opening him up to more scrutiny nationally and in his home state when there is fresh momentum to ban assault-style weapons in the state — and nationwide.

The video is resurfacing as Robert Crimo III, who faces seven counts of first-degree murder, was ordered held without bond Wednesday in Lake County after he was charged in one of the worst massacres in the state in recent history.

Assistant State Attorney Ben Dillon said in court that authorities recovered a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 semi-automatic rifle that the gunman dropped as he was fleeing Monday.

The firearm’s similarity to the one raffled off by Bailey offers a stark contrast to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Last year, Bailey proposed unsuccessful legislation to eliminate the Firearm Owners Identification, or FOID, card, and he continues to sell “Void the FOID” T-shirts on his campaign website.

Bailey, who is running as a staunch Trump supporter, wasn’t the Republican Party’s top pick for November’s showdown with Pritzker. The GOP spent about $50 million in a failed effort to steer support toward a moderate candidate, Richard Irvin, but Bailey won decisively in last month’s primary, proudly declaring aggressive pro-gun and anti-abortion rights stances in this blue state.

But positions that may have proven popular in the primary are getting much different receptions in the general election campaign. Bailey quickly came under criticism this week, trending nationally on social media Monday, after he said “let’s move on” about two hours after the Highland Park shooter fired more than 70 rounds into the crowd, killing seven people and injuring dozens more.

“The shooter is still at large, so let’s pray for justice to prevail and then let’s move on and celebrate the independence of this nation,” Bailey said in a live video streamed on Facebook, where he and supporters took a moment in prayer.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., wrote on Twitter: “This is what happens with MAGA type candidates. They have been so trained with ‘own the libs’ and anger that they lost the ability to have compassion.”

National commentator Keith Olbermann tweeted, “To hell with him and all who support him."

Bailey apologized after the backlash asserting that he had been dismissive of the massacre.

“I apologize if in any way we diminished the pain being felt across our state today,” he said in a statement provided by his campaign. “I hope we can all come together in prayer and action to address rampant crime and mental health issues to make sure these horrific tragedies don’t happen again.”

Bailey's comments weren’t well received by some in Highland Park, where residents have visited a site near the shooting to pay tribute to those who were gunned down. One of the residents, Jurgen Peters, said he heard Bailey’s apology on the radio but didn’t believe he really regretted his comments.

“I think that’s probably who he is,” Peters said. “He’s pro-guns, so he can’t say, ‘Oh what a calamity, what a bad situation.’ He’s not going to go up and say that.”

In response to further questions about Bailey’s “move on” comments, a spokesman provided a statement attributed to Bailey that referred to the Highland Park victims, as well as shootings in Chicago.

“Friends, we continue to ask that we come together in prayer and action to address the plague of violence and commit to better addressing mental health in Illinois and across the nation,” the statement said. “We continue to lift up the victims of Highland Park and the victims we see daily in and around the city of Chicago and across our state.”

Still, Bailey’s comments about guns over the years could be a dealbreaker in a statewide race.

“I support the Second Amendment. I support constitutional carry and eliminating FOID cards,” Bailey tweeted March 4. “The FOID serves no purpose except to create a barrier between honest Illinoisans and their ability to protect themselves and their families.”

Bailey’s efforts to rid the state of FOID cards, part of a permitting system that includes expanded background check requirements, went nowhere in a Legislature with Democratic supermajorities. Instead, Pritzker last year signed into law a bill toughening FOID card requirements.

The video of the AR-15 raffle is also likely to prove politically beneficial for Pritzker, who had already been casting Bailey as too extreme for Illinois.

Pritzker’s response to the shooting was starkly different from Bailey’s. He delivered a fiery speech on the day of the massacre, decrying gun violence and encouraging a nationwide ban on assault-style rifles.

The next day, he lashed out at a National Rifle Association tweet that read, “Since 1950, 94% of mass public shootings occurred in gun-free zones.”

Pritzker responded: “And 100% of mass public shootings happen with guns. As Governor, on behalf of the people of Highland Park — leave us the hell alone.”

The Bailey campaign wouldn’t answer questions about whether he would continue raffling off firearms. Instead, it offered a statement criticizing Pritzker’s track record on crime in Illinois.

“Crime has skyrocketed under JB Pritzker and he has failed to keep our streets safe. Pritzker’s attacks reek of desperation and offer no solutions,” Bailey spokesman Joe DeBose said in a statement to NBC News. “Darren Bailey supports major expansion of mental health funding and empowering police to enforce existing laws on the books.”

In response, Pritzker campaign spokeswoman Natalie Edelstein said: “Darren Bailey lacks the empathy and temperament necessary to lead our state. His obsession with unfettered access to weapons of war — even as they destroy the very communities he claims to care about — is disqualifying. This moment demands strong, compassionate leadership, and Darren Bailey has made it abundantly clear he is unable to provide that.”