This February 4, 2013 photo illustration in Manassas, Virginia, shows a man holding a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. US President Barack Obama Monday heaped pressure on Congress for action “soon” on curbing gun violence. Obama made a pragmatic case for legislation on the contentious issue, arguing that just because political leaders could not save every life, they should at least try to save some victims of rampant gun crime. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

By Valerie Plame and Miranda Viscoli, Co-President of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence

When is the highly respected United Way’s mission to “improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities around the world to advance the common good” incompatible with their actions? When they allow a United Way chapter in New Mexico to auction off firearms – including military assault style weapons as a means to fundraise. Yes, you read that right.

United Way Worldwide is officially sanctioning a yearlong raffle in rural Otero County, New Mexico — with full knowledge that this fundraiser will distribute over a hundred deadly firearms into New Mexican communities already ravaged by gun violence.

We are being pressured by the international headquarters of the United Way not to talk to the press about this event. But, silencing of voices that urge peace and reason is not an effective means of stopping violence in our communities. Our collective conscience demands that we speak out. In 2012, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School a group of concerned citizens founded a grassroots local organization called New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence. Like so many Americans, we could not stand by and do nothing after twenty innocent young children were killed by one of the firearms labeled “Grand Prizes” in the upcoming United Way raffle.

With over 33,000 people killed every year by gun violence in the US (and many more injured), the time for silence has long passed. We believe that a vast majority of Americans will find the United distributing weapons like the AR-15 assault rifle into one of our communities to be as morally repugnant as we do. In fact, the first weapon to be raffled off in January will be a military grade Barret m95.50 BMG sniper rifle, designed to kill a person up to a mile away. This is not for killing a rabbit. The sniper rifle is valued at $8,999 on the United Way website. That’s a lot of money in rural New Mexico. The United Way Worldwide is fully aware of laws that allow the raffle “winner” to turn around and immediately sell that military grade sniper rifle to absolutely anyone. No background check or questions of any kind are required in a personal gun sale in New Mexico. The raffle winner can then sell that deadly sniper rifle to the highest bidder, whether that person is a drug cartel member or gang member, a terrorist, a felon, or a medical patient with a history of violence.

A full list of the 100+ weapons that the United Way will introduce into our community can be found on the Otero County United Way website, complete with pictures of the “Grand Prizes.”

When we first approached the United Way Worldwide in early August about the firearm raffle, it appeared that they were going to do the right thing. They told us that “United Way of Otero County has removed references to the firearms raffle from their website” and that “we are still following up to ensure the event is not happening at all.” The Alamogordo Daily News even printed an article about the Raffle being cancelled. Not surprisingly, gun groups began targeting both the United Way and New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence with their usual bullying tactics.

We just learned that the raffle is back on and that United Way Worldwide is fine with that.

We understand that NRA bullies can be intimidating. In fact, we have been experiencing their ire for some time now. But, it is the cowardice of people who know better that makes violence epidemic in our country. It is unfortunate (and stupid, frankly) that the Worldwide Board of Directors were not willing to stay true to their mission in the face of misplaced pressure from local and national gun groups.

Many of us who have supported the United Way for years are deeply embarrassed by and for the organization. And, we pray that these violent weapons being unleashed on our communities by the United Way will not become instruments of mayhem in the 91 deaths that occur as a result of gun violence in our county every day. Do we really need the money from this raffle so badly that we are willing to pay the price of innocent lives lost?