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On duty, in uniform, suburban cops raffled off assault rifle

| Smith & Wesson

With some fanfare, the village of Melrose Park adopted restrictions in 2013 on assault weapons.

Back then, Mayor Ron Serpico said: “The thing I can’t get my arms around, I know when the Constitution was passed, I don’t think they could envision these types of guns.”

The Melrose Park chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police raffled off an AR-15-style weapon like this one. | Smith & Wesson

Despite the restrictions, police officers in the west suburb — in uniform, on the clock, while working security on village grounds over Labor Day weekend at the Taste of Melrose Park festival — were allowed to hawk $10 raffle tickets for a chance to win an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle as a fund-raiser for their union. They also raffled off a Ruger 9mm handgun.

The officers had a booth at the main entrance to the outdoor festival held at the suburb’s sprawling municipal government complex. They also walked the grounds, asking people at the festival if they’d like to buy raffle tickets.

For $10 a ticket, people had a chance to win the raffle. | Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

In a letter to village residents promoting the Taste of Melrose Park, Serpico described the event as a “family-friendly food festival that hosts over 200,000 patrons every year,” with most vendors “local residents who serve up original family recipes.”

The raffle winners, picked in a drawing, got vouchers to pick up the weapons from a gun shop, providing they had a valid Illinois firearm owner’s ID card.

Sgt. Raul Rodriguez. | Village of Melrose Park

Reached by phone, Sgt. Raul Rodriguez, head of Melrose Park’s Fraternal Order of Police chapter, said he was in a class and couldn’t talk but would call back. He didn’t. Nor did he respond to subsequent calls.

Andrew Mack, a Melrose Park government spokesman, said police union members cleared the raffle with their lawyer, who assured them it was legal and that they were allowed to sell raffle tickets while working the festival.

Melrose Park’s police director, Sam Pitassi, wouldn’t comment.

The village’s assault weapons ordinance specifically bans possession of AR-15s — semiautomatic rifles that can load magazines with multiple bullets — as well as other assault-style guns.

There are broad loopholes to the ordinance, though.

They can be sold in Melrose Park, for instance. And they are — at Suburban Sporting Goods, a gun shop that’s been around for decades, run by Donald Beltrame. Beltrame’s store has been a campaign contributor to Serpico, giving $400 since the start of last year, records show.

Also, with the proper paperwork, ownership of the weapons in Melrose Park is allowed by “any officer, agent, or employee of the village, or of any other municipality, county, body politic or any other state or of the United States,” or a military member, under the ordinance.

Village officials wouldn’t identify the winners of the two guns. But they said someone from Woodridge won the rifle and that the winner of the handgun is from Forest Park.

The police union bought the raffled AR-15 from Beltrame’s shop, where it sat during a visit by a reporter this past week, yet to be picked up.

The Ruger also was still to be picked up, according to Beltrame. The police union bought it from a woman and then transferred the gun to the shop for the raffle, Mack said.

This is where the winners were directed to go to pick up their guns.| Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Over the years, the Melrose Park police department has used the gun shop to dissemble or destroy guns seized during investigations, according to Beltrame. It also repairs officers’ guns.

Mack said he knows that some might object to cops raffling off high-capacity weapons. But he said it’s worth noting that many fraternal groups, including those comprised of police officers, have these kinds of fund-raisers.

”They’re not walking around selling guns,” Mack said of the officers who were involved in the fund-raising raffle for their union. “They’re following a playbook of other agencies that have done this.”

In Addison in 2015, a firefighters union raised money by raffling off an AR-15-style rifle, an official confirmed.

It’s “within the legal parameters,” Mack initially said of the Melrose Park effort.

Days later, though, that changed.

“The view is it did not likely comply with the ordinance,” Mack said Friday.

Ticket sales began days before the festival and ran through the event. Serpico approved the raffle, according to Mack, who said, “He knew it was going to be some weapon, but he didn’t know it was going to be this particular gun. He approved it because the FOP does a lot of good, charitable work.”

Mack said the union was putting the money into a fund that’s used for, among other things, “everything from sending flowers to widows to sponsoring Little League to paying legal fees.”

According to a source who spoke only on the condition of not being identified, union members said they raised at least $10,000 through the raffle. Mack said the amount hasn’t been fully tallied.

AR-15-style guns — multiple manufacturers now make weapons based on the original knockoff of an American military weapon — were used in the mass shootings of school children in Newtown, Conn., and at an Orlando nightclub.

AR-15s and other so-called assault weapons have long been the target of gun-control advocates, trying to limit access to them.

“A weapon that’s been used in mass shootings, in my opinion, is distasteful,” said Colleen Daley of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. “It’s not something we should be raffling off.”

But gun rights advocates have argued that limiting access violates their rights.

Noting that divide, The New York Times described the AR-15 last year as “one of most beloved and most vilified rifles in the country.”

In Cook County, a law restricting the sale and possession of this type of weaponry is being challenged in court for the second time in recent years.

Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association. | Sun-Times files

The Illinois State Rifle Association, which is affiliated with the National Rifle Association, supports the lawsuit. The Illinois group’s executive director, Richard Pearson, said there’s a misconception, passed along through news coverage, about guns like AR-15s. Saying they are this country’s most popular rifles for target shooting, Pearson said they shouldn’t be classified as assault weapons because they aren’t fully automatic.

The military uses fully automatic versions. The AR-15 “looks like the military rifle, but it isn’t,” Pearson said.

He added, “I wish I had a couple tickets to the Melrose [Park] police department” raffle.

This was the Melrose Park police union’s first time raffling guns, according to Mack — and it will be the last.

“They will never do this again,” Mack said. “They realized this was a bad idea.”

The site of the Taste of Melrose Park, where the raffle was held outside the civic center. | Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Serpico declined an interview request. Instead, he responded with a written statement.

“The recent raffle held by the local Fraternal Order of Police does not conform with the spirit or intent of Melrose Park’s ordinance banning assault weapons,” Serpico said, adding that he did not buy any tickets for the drawing. “This type of contest is widely held across the Chicago area, and although the FOP was well-intentioned and does commendable work in our community, we cannot allow them to hold future contests that award weapons as prizes.”

And according to Mack, one or more officers now could face disciplinary action over the raffle.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times