The Times Union reports…
“During a hymn Sunday at Grace Baptist Church in Lansingburgh, Pastor John Koletas pulled out the AR-15 rifle his church was giving away and, while still singing, placed it on the front of the altar.
In the background, a large American flag hung over one of the 200-year-old church’s stained-glass windows. The texts of the First and Second Amendments were printed large, flanking the baptismal font.
Welcome to Koletas’ type of worship, where images of uprising Colonists defending their homes from British armies are meshed with a plea to turn to God and Jesus Christ.
“We have our Constitution to protect us,” Koletas said during the service, “but we have our liberty to protect ourselves.”
Earlier this month, Koletas’ giveaway caused controversy after he released a flier promoting the event, with a picture of the gun prominently displayed. But the scene was a calm one Sunday, with about 150 people filling the pews. Television and still cameras were not allowed into the service, but most of the media rushed in as Koletas drew names for the giveaway, the pastor still wearing the rubber boots and hip waders he had donned to dip three people in the church’s baptismal font.
Ron Stafford, 42, of Schenectady, won the rifle, but not before three other people’s names were called and then discarded because they had already left.
“Never leave a church service before it’s over,” Koletas told the crowd.
Stafford wore a broad smile and shook congregants’ hands after learning of his win, a gun valued between $800 and $1,200, he said. The church, which purchased the rifle from Oakwood Trading Post, would not say how much it cost.
“This is our way of life here in Upstate New York,” said Stafford, who must go through a background check before taking possession of the firearm. “The media has demonized people.”
Four other people’s names were also drawn; they will be next in line for the rifle if Stafford fails the background check.
Bob Gray Sr., a retired pastor from Texas, spoke at the service, as did Republican Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin of Schaghticoke. McLaughlin revisited his protests of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state’s NY SAFE Act, which requires the registration of assault-style rifles.
Gray warned parishioners that gun rights can’t be the church’s only focus.
“I’m kind of reprimanding you,” said Gray. “You ought to be more passionate about the Gospel than the gun issue.”
But Gray also told the crowd he was carrying a concealed weapon at the event. “And listen up, reporters,” Gray said, “It’s not registered.”
About 75 people signed up for the drawing, and had to show a driver’s license to prove their identity and that they were over 18 years old to win the firearm.
Eric Myron drove from his home in Freehold, Greene County, to get a chance at winning the rifle; his sister won a gun at a gun shop giveaway in Cairo 10 years ago.
Myron said he owns guns that he uses on a range near his home, as well as to hunt.
“There was stuff I wanted that I can’t get now,” Myron said. “(State laws) are just punishing the good people.”
Myron also attends anti-SAFE Act rallies, and said he wears a Russian-style hat.
“Hey, Steve,” Myron said upon seeing McLaughlin at the service. “You probably don’t recognize me without the communist hat.”
Koletas said the church received death threats in reaction to the giveaway, but he wouldn’t say in what form. When asked if he contacted police about the threats the pastor said, “I don’t need the police to protect myself.”
The pastor said a large chunk of his church’s budget was used to purchase the gun and promote the event; he wouldn’t say how much. But he decided to spend more and give away a second gun at a Monday night service. When Koletas announced the surprise second giveaway at the Sunday service, shouts of “Amen” erupted from the crowd.”