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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Gambling commission tells NRA 'no' for now on raising gun raffle limit

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Michael Herrera, left, and Bradley Kruger, center, of the National Rifle Association at a Washington State Gambling Commission Meeting

The Washington State Gambling Commission voted Thursday to delay deciding a request from the National Rifle Association's charitable arm to increase a $300,000 cap on raffle prizes. The commission cited ongoing investigations of the NRA’s nonprofit status and finances in New York and Washington, D.C.

The NRA Foundation, through its Friends of the NRA events, raffles off firearms, in addition to other items, to raise money for programs such as hunter education and competitive shooting teams. Since 1990, the foundation has awarded $4.25 million in grants in Washington, according to documents filed with the gambling commission.

However, The New York Times reported earlier this year that over the past decade the D.C.-based charitable foundation has transferred more than $200 million to the NRA. Last month, the D.C. attorney general issued subpoenas to the NRA and the foundation as part of a probe into whether nonprofit laws were violated.

Separately, New York's attorney general is investigating the NRA's nonprofit status and earlier this week issued subpoenas to current and former board members, according to The Times

In a unanimous vote, the commission decided to delay a decision on whether to increase the raffle limit above the current $300,000 cap. Instead, the commission directed its staff to audit the approximately 100 firearms the NRA Foundation says it gave away in Washington state over the past year to ensure all laws were followed and all recipients were lawfully entitled to own a gun.

In addition, the commission said it wants to determine how much of the money raised by the foundation's auctions in Washington state has flowed to the national foundation over the years.

While the foundation is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, the NRA is a 501(c)(4), which is allowed to engage in political activity.

"I don't want to in any way enable the NRA's political activities," said Commissioner Julia Patterson, a former King County Council member, prior to Thursday's vote at the meeting in Lacey.

Bradley Kruger, the NRA's western regional director, told the commission that the money raised by the foundation in Washington state is sent back to its headquarters in D.C., but then earmarked to be spent in the state or used to fund national grants for programs such as Eddie Eagle GunSafe and Refuse to be a Victim.

"We're highly regulated by the IRS, it has to go towards our mission statement," Kruger said. 

Kruger also said all winners of gun raffles get a certificate they can use to obtain the firearm through a federally licensed gun dealer, following a background check.

"We are 100 percent in compliance with all state laws and regulations, they have to go through a background check on every one of them," Kruger told the commission. "We don't let them walk out of the banquet at the end of the night with any firearm, they have to go to the dealer."

The foundation also keeps records of all raffle winners. 

Even so, Sheri Sawyer, a senior policy advisor to Gov. Jay Inslee, urged the commission to delay its decision on raising the raffle limit. 

"I think it's really incumbent upon the commission to ensure that before there is any decision to put more guns and more firearms out there in the public, that you have an assurance that they are meeting the letter of the law and state regulation," Sawyer said during public testimony. 

Sawyer added later that Inslee has broader concerns over whether guns should be auctioned or raffled off, and that his office will be looking into that issue. Inslee, a Democrat who is running for president, issued a series of proposals this week to address gun violence in the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. 

Also voicing opposition to raising the NRA Foundation's raffle limit were representatives from Washington's Alliance for Gun Responsibility. 

"The Gambling Commission was right to have delayed action until they are confident the money is being used appropriately, particularly given ongoing investigations," said Tallman Trask, the group's policy and advocacy director, in a statement following the vote.

Representatives of the NRA declined to comment following the vote, and a spokesman for the organization did not immediately return a call. However, in testimony before the commission, Kruger defended the work of the foundation. 

"We do not engage in political or legislative practices, that's not what we're about," Kruger said. "We're the NRA Foundation, not the NRA." 

For the 2019-20 fiscal year, the NRA Foundation has estimated its gross gambling receipts in Washington state will reach $1 million, including $500,000 in prizes. 

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."