CBS Local — A youth baseball team in Missouri is drawing national criticism for proceeding with the raffle of an AR-15 assault rifle in the wake of Florida’s deadly school shooting that killed 17 people.

The third-grade team from Neosho, Missouri is using the funds from the raffle to pay for their travel expenses after the weapon was reportedly donated by the father of one of the players.

Coach Levi Patterson defended the raffle when speaking to The Kansas City Star and stated that he hoped to “turn it into a positive thing,” despite social media backlash. “I applaud them for standing up for what they believe in,” he said of those protesting the raffle. “I just think they have feelings to this specific type of gun (that are) different than people around here do,” told the Star.

“Gun raffles have been going on for years. Evil has and will always exist. Our hearts break for those involved, and we do not take that lightly,” Patterson said in a Facebook post responding to critics. The little league coach added that none of the boys, who range in age from seven to nine-years-old, were being forced to sell the raffle tickets if they didn’t want to.

“AR15 kills seventeen so you raffle a gun for child sports?… Justify all you want but you are wrong, period.” one person wrote on Patterson’s Facebook page. The team says the Neosho third-graders have also received donations from supporters as far away as Colorado since the controversy began.

The Missouri baseball team isn’t the only group in the state giving away an AR-15. Missouri Senate candidate Austin Petersen’s campaign posted an AR-15 giveaway on their website in September. “If somebody gave us a 1911 sidearm, we would have given that away,” Petersen told KMOV. “There isn’t any tragedy that justifies taking away the rights of innocent people.”

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