Critics call it a gimmick, but state Sen. Greg Evers' decision to give away a semiautomatic rifle similar to a gun used in the massacre at an Orlando nightclub could be priceless.
Evers, running for an open Northwest Florida congressional seat in one of the state's most conservative districts, announced Monday morning on Facebook that he is giving away an AR-15 to a district resident who "likes" the social media post and shares it with others.
By the end of the day, Facebook had removed Evers' gun giveaway promotion, saying it violated the social media site's "community standards" policy that bans posts "promoting graphic violence."
But the media maelstrom surrounding the gun contest hasn't gone away.
Brian Burgess, a media consultant working for Evers' campaign, said that two Facebook posts regarding the AR-15 --- one of them an announcement about the giveaway, and a separate posting of a story by Politico about the contest --- had generated more than 100,000 hits in less than two days and resulted in more than 5,000 "likes."
Evers, a Baker farmer running in a hotly contested GOP primary for Congressional District 1, said that he and his campaign staff fretted about whether to move forward with the contest in the aftermath of the June 12 massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in downtown Orlando, that left 49 people --- many of them gay and Hispanic --- dead and dozens injured.
"There was an internal campaign team struggle," Evers said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
But Evers, who has received an "A" or "A-plus" rating from the National Rifle Association during his 15 years in the state Legislature, said he felt compelled to move forward with the gun giveaway after listening to President Barack Obama, who traveled to Orlando last week and has used the mass killing to push for stricter gun-control measures.
"It wasn't an easy decision to move forward," Evers said. "But when Barack Obama went down there and he blamed a terrorist attack on the weapon, that was the final straw."
In an interview on Monday, Equality Florida Deputy Director Stratton Pollitzer called Evers' gun giveaway "tasteless, disrespectful, disgusting, political pandering at its worst."
But Evers, who said he donated to the Orlando victims' fund this weekend, said his contest "was not meant to be insensitive."
Instead, the LGBT community is "being insensitive to the fact that America is under terrorist attack," Evers said.
"It's not about any gender. It's about the Second Amendment. The train has run off the track," he said.
Evers said his campaign had planned the "Homeland Defender Giveaway" before the Orlando killing. The semiautomatic rifle will be given away on July 4, he said.
"It was going to happen. We were waiting for the opportune time to bring it out. It was a struggle with the timing after the event," he said.
Evers is running to replace U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, who is not seeking re-election, in a crowded GOP primary against state Rep. Matt Gaetz; James Zumwalt, a former Miller aide; Cris Dosev; Brian Frazier; Mark Wichern; and Rebekah Bydlak. The winner of the Republican contest in August is expected to head to Washington.
While critics accuse Evers of using the Orlando tragedy to boost his popularity, he's certainly not alone in turning to social media to get his message across. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump --- who has more than 9 million Twitter followers --- has boasted of his prowess at generating free publicity using social media sites.
Evers' gun giveaway is symbolic of the modern campaign era, said Justin Sayfie, a lobbyist and media consultant who once served as a chief adviser to former Gov. Jeb Bush.
"It's really the extension of the rule that some people say Donald Trump made famous that any publicity is good publicity, or I don't care what they say about me, just spell my name right," Sayfie said. "So I think from that perspective, anyone running for federal office or state office is looking for opportunities to rise above the crowd of other candidates and to distinguish themselves. With the ubiquitousness of social media, a well-timed piece of political rhetoric can spread far and wide faster than ever before."
Even so, "it would be nice if elected officials and candidates could resist the temptation to score political points at a time of national tragedy," Sayfie said. "That's probably a pipe dream and wishful thinking on my part. But the way I look at it is, it's just potentially compounding the problem and it's playing into the hands of those who commit atrocities."
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