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Democrats Grapple With Gun Control Positions in Must-Win District

General agreement in New York’s 19th District that more gun control is needed

A demonstrator is seen on the Mall near the student-led March for Our Lives rally to call for action to prevent gun violence. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A demonstrator is seen on the Mall near the student-led March for Our Lives rally to call for action to prevent gun violence. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

More than 100 town hall meetings across the country this week are focusing on gun violence — including two in New York’s traditionally gun-friendly 19th District.

Two Democratic candidates hoping to take on GOP Rep. John Faso are hosting town hall meetings as activists look to sustain focus on gun control issues following the Feb. 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

The candidates acknowledge the upstate New York district is home to scores of gun owners. And they don’t appear to be concerned that highlighting the issue could hurt them in November, as they look to make their mark in the crowded Democratic primary.

“I think there’s been too much political calculus on this issue for way too long,” said Democrat Pat Ryan, who hosted a meeting Tuesday night. “And we need to look at the overwhelming feedback we’re getting from young people … that the current situation is not working.”

In a district that’s expected to be one of the most competitive House races of the cycle, it remains to be seen whether the Democrats’ gun control positions could be an issue in the general election. Other issues could dominate the campaign.

But for now Democrats are seizing on the issue, looking to fire up their base and use the opportunity to cast Faso as out of touch.

Watch: ‘Vote Them Out’: Thousands March on Washington to Protest Inaction on Gun Violence

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Too far to the left?

Ryan began his town hall in Kingston, New York, Tuesday night by touting his support for an assault weapons ban. Ryan, an Iraq War veteran, said he is familiar with the type of weapons used in mass shootings.

“This is a weapon that’s designed purely to kill human beings,” Ryan said Tuesday night at the event, which was live-streamed.

Ryan said in an interview Wednesday night that he decided to hold the event when others — especially Faso — appeared unwilling. Fellow Democrat Gareth Rhodes, who worked for Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is also holding a town hall meeting on the issue Saturday in the small town of Hamden.

Ryan said Faso was invited to the meetings, but his campaign said in a statement the congressman learned of the events through local media reports.

“Given that our campaign initially learned about these events through the press, the Democratic candidates’ efforts appear to be geared more toward political gain rather than developing real solutions,” according to a campaign statement sent to Roll Call. The statement said Faso has met with school officials, law enforcement and other stakeholders to develop solutions to gun violence.

Faso has said he would support raising the age to purchase a firearm to 21. He said in a March 27 radio interview on WAMC that he would not support universal background checks, since guns passed down to family members should not be subject to a background check. Faso also declined to promise not to accept money from the National Rifle Association, from which he has an “A” rating.

The NRA donated nearly $6,000 to Faso in 2016, and $3,000 so far for the 2018 cycle, according to OpenSecrets. The NRA also spent nearly $37,000 in independent expenditures to support Faso in 2016. 

At a forum on gun violence after the nationwide “March for Our Lives” on March 24, all seven of the Democrats’ campaigns said they would never accept money from the NRA. (Five candidates attended the forum, along with the other two candidates’ campaign managers.)

For the most part, the candidates agree on gun control policies: expanding background checks, allowing research of gun violence, making it easier to sue gun manufacturers, and barring domestic abusers from getting guns.

Supporting an assault weapons ban appears to be one of the few policies dividing the candidates in the primary. Along with Ryan and Rhodes, attorney David Clegg and economist Erin Collier (the only woman in the race) would also support an assault weapons ban.

Businessman Brian Flynn, attorney Antonio Delgado and teacher Jeff Beals haven’t explicitly backed an assault weapons ban, but called for banning AR-15s or other weapons designed for military use. Flynn, Delgado, Ryan and Rhodes were designated “gun sense candidates” by Moms Demand Action. 

Several of the candidates contended these positions would not hurt their chances of winning the 19th District, which includes the Hudson River Valley and large rural swaths of dairy farms and apple orchards.

“The bottom line is that these common sense measures are not radical positions by any stretch,” Delgado, who has raised the most money of the 19th District candidates in 2017, said in a statement.

“People here hunt, they shoot recreationally and they need to know that they can protect their family in areas where police can’t respond quickly,” Delgado said. “I respect that and understand that those things are important. I’m not out to take guns away from responsible owners.”

Rhodes noted he grew up on a farm where a shotgun was used for protection. He said it’s important for Democratic candidates to understand the cultural connection to firearms in rural parts of the district.

Rhodes said since the shooting in Parkland, gun violence is either the first or second issue he hears about at every stop on his “Rhodes Trip,” even in rural areas. He’s currently traveling the district in a 1999 Ford Winnebago, visiting all 163 towns, and said people agree on “commonsense” solutions.

Some gun control measures are popular with members of both parties in the state, according to a Siena College poll conducted March 11-16.

Eighty-four percent of Republicans surveyed supported prohibiting the sale of guns to people convicted of domestic violence, as did 87 percent of upstate New Yorkers. Three-quarters of upstate New Yorkers also supported banning bump stocks, which can cause a semiautomatic weapon to operate like a machine gun.

A federal assault weapons ban was more divisive. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed from upstate backed the ban. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats support such a ban, compared to 51 percent of Republicans.

The state gun control legislation passed in the wake of the 2013 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, which included a statewide ban on assault weapons, is also less popular upstate, with 48 percent of upstate New Yorkers backing the law.

Citing broad support for gun control policies, these candidates have moved toward more strident support of gun control, especially after the Parkland shooting.

Clegg, one of the Democratic candidates, said the discussion in early candidate forums was “more in line with sensitivity to gun ownership and how important it was and respecting the rural culture of possessing guns, which we still respect.”

“It wasn’t something that was new to me, in terms of wanting to ban weapons of mass destruction in our country, but it something we were not discussing as an issue in this campaign,” Clegg said.

He said candidates are now more willing to discuss policies like an assault weapons ban and universal background checks. Asked why the discussion shifted, Clegg noted the students calling for action and said, “I think the children shamed us.”

But time will tell whether embracing such policies will hurt the eventual nominee.

“You probably have that with almost any issue they’re on,” Democratic activist and consultant Karen Feldman said when asked if there was concern candidates were moving too far to the left on gun control. “Certainly the gun issue is an emotional issue up here”

On to November

With the general election seven months away, it’s too early to tell if gun control will be a decisive issue in the general election. Some candidates said the economy and health care were more likely to dominate the campaign.

But some also suggested the issue of gun violence was not going away.

“Yes it will!” Flynn said in a statement when asked about whether this could be an issue in the general election. He noted the NRA’s donations to Faso and his own pledge not to take money from the NRA.

“I’d be happy to have THAT conversation in the general,” Flynn said.

Roger Rascoe, chairman of the Ulster County Republican Party, said he was not concerned the issue would hurt Faso’s chances for re-election.

“I believe that the mainstream folks understand that we have to have responsible legislation, and I really don’t believe it’s going to affect Congressman Faso’s re-election at all,” Rasco said.

One Democratic strategist working in House races said the issue is more likely to turn out Democratic voters than sway undecided voters.

Rhodes disagreed, arguing that voters in the district are not easily placed in one political box. (His neighbor, he said, has both an NRA sticker and a Sierra Club sticker on his car.)

Voters in the district have consistently voted for Republicans at the congressional level. But President Barack Obama carried the district by 8 points in 2008, and 6 points in 2012. President Donald Trump took the district by 7 points in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Republican.

Registered Democrats also outnumber registered Republicans in the district by nearly 6,000 voters. Roughly 27 percent of voters in the district are not registered with either party.

Both Rhodes and Ryan noted the energy among young people in the district over the issue, and suggested young people were more engaged in the race. Younger voters have typically been more difficult to turn out in the district.

Eli Duncan-Gilmour, an 18 year-old student at New Paltz High School, spoke at Ryan’s town hall meeting Tuesday night, and said young people calling for action on gun violence were ready to head to the polls.

“There’s a new group of voters that hasn’t been here before and our elected officials are going to have to grapple with this,” he said. “We’re going to start voting and we’re not going away.”

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