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Gun issue in NY governor's race evolves in wake of shootings

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signs the NY Safe

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signs the NY Safe Act in Rochester on Jan. 16, 2013. Credit: AP

ALBANY — Public support for New York’s SAFE Act gun control law has grown in light of school shootings and other public massacres and has led to a change in how candidates for governor are campaigning on the issue, experts say.

For Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the 2013 SAFE Act — which banned additional assault rifles and required more frequent review of pistol licenses and more thorough background checks — was one of his most politically costly actions, which included a 34-point favorability drop among Republicans in a poll immediately after the bill's passage. Today he calls it one of his greatest accomplishments in campaign stops statewide, not just in New York City and its suburbs where the law was always popular.

For Republican nominee Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, the growing support for gun control even within much of his base means he doesn't have to embrace the National Rifle Association in the same way that past GOP nominees for governor did.

“Cuomo is now doing what an increasing number of candidates around the country are doing — that is, aggressively touting his support for this law and gun safety measures more generally, and wearing NRA opposition to him as a badge of honor,” said Robert Spitzer, political science professor at SUNY Cortland and author of “Guns Across America.”

“The fact that Molinaro is not embracing the NRA position reflects the fact that he comes from a more liberal downstate area where even Republicans have no big problem with the law, and the fact that he’s got to reach out to Democrats and independents if he is to have any hope of closing the ground between himself and Cuomo,” Spitzer said.

The evolution of gun control politics is evident in other states, including Ohio, a conservative battleground state for president. Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 GOP candidate for president, is pushing several bills aimed at “sensible reforms to reduce gun violence," which Molinaro said is also his goal.

Today Cuomo says in campaign events statewide that the value of the SAFE Act is proven by “mass massacres on a weekly basis” elsewhere in the country. He promises to expand gun control laws if he wins a third term. Cuomo is also trying to leverage the issue against Molinaro, whom he seeks to paint as a "Trump mini-me."

“Leave it to them, they would repeal our gun-safety laws,” Cuomo said of Republicans, at an upstate business leaders' event last week. 

Molinaro is also campaigning on the issue far differently than past GOP nominees for governor, which included a 2014 gun rally in Albany headlined by Donald Trump. Molinaro has refused to take contributions from the NRA, and doesn’t seek a positive rating from it. His gun control plan is to get all sides, including gun owners, to work together toward a common goal of ending mass gun attacks. He has acknowledged that the longtime GOP mantra to repeal the SAFE Act is unlikely because of a Democratic-controlled Assembly. Molinaro, however, still walks a fine line on the issue critical to a shrinking segment of his base.

“We need to talk about violence and how to confront that,” said Molinaro, who voted against the SAFE Act as an assemblyman. His current position could draw interest from independent voters and Democrats who support the law, political analysts say.

His running mate, lieutenant governor candidate Julie Killian, in her unsuccessful campaign for State Senate in Westchester earlier this year, said in a televised Senate debate that she wouldn’t repeal any part of the SAFE Act and believes in “common-sense gun control.”

Polls show how the public view of gun control and the SAFE Act have changed.

More New Yorkers supported the SAFE Act and fewer opposed it after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in February, according to a comparison of Siena Research Institute polls from this March and one from October 2015, the last poll about guns that it took before the massacre.

Three years before Parkland, 59 percent of New Yorkers supported the SAFE Act, compared with 61 percent this year. In 2015, 33 percent opposed the SAFE Act, compared with 28 percent this year.

More independent voters support the SAFE Act now — 66 percent — compared with 57 percent in 2015.

Among Republicans, 50 percent opposed the SAFE Act in 2015, compared with 42 percent this year.

Overall among upstate voters, 47 percent opposed the SAFE Act and 45 percent supported it in 2015. This year, 48 percent supported the SAFE Act compared with 42 percent who opposed it.

“Politically, being in support of gun control is a winning issue,” Greenberg said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat in a county won by President Trump, said he has seen the evolution of the issue statewide.

"We have all watched in horror as our schools and houses of worship have become targets of senseless gun violence," Bellone said. "Washington has refused to take action and parents will no longer tolerate politicians that oppose common sense gun safety measures.”

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