Feb 17, 2014
08:19 AM
Connecticut Today

Pro-Gun Voters Aiming to Impact 2014 Elections

Pro-Gun Voters Aiming to Impact 2014 Elections

Wanted: Republican ambitious for higher office. Must love guns and freedom. Hates Connecticut’s gun laws. Must be willing to work to repeal said laws. Able to raise lots of money and win the general election.

That’s the mission for many of Connecticut’s gun owners, who were awakened politically after the state passed some of the toughest gun-control laws in the nation. They’re now in search of a gubernatorial candidate to beat Democratic incumbent Dannel P. Malloy, and although they are overwhelmingly Republican, they ultimately might balk at the party’s pick if it’s not seen as pro-gun enough.

This could cause a schism in the Republican party that pushes it to the far right, potentially making it harder to find votes in a blue state.

That potential party divide was made starkly clear on a cold night in January during a New Haven fundraiser for the national Republican party. On one side of College Street stood 25 Tea Party Republicans, protesting that state GOP legislators had broken an oath by voting for gun control, while across the street inside the venerable Owl Shop, many of those same legislators were enjoying cigars and conversation with National Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus. Republicans all around, but more than two lanes of traffic separating the two factions.

For their part, gun owners have vowed to make it a central issue in the governor’s race—even as the topic seemingly disappears from the national conversation.

During January’s State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama made just one mention of gun control, vowing to keep “trying . . . to help stop more tragedies,” a far cry from the call to action he delivered in his 2013 address, two months after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Connecticut’s delegation in D.C. hasn’t forgotten the issue and calls for legislation, but it’s no longer among the daily priorities for those on Capitol Hill—most aren’t even discussing gun laws for the upcoming legislative session as it’s become such a political hot potato in this election year.

“Gun owners are certainly a lot more active now than they ever have been before,” says Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizen’s Defense League (CCDL). “A lot of CCDL members have joined their town committees . . . offering hands-on support with campaigns. If they’re not operating in a capacity of a campaign, then they are getting the word out about SB 1160 [the state’s new gun-control law] and the so-called assault weapon ban, which infringes on the rights of Americans. There’s going to be a difference in this election because of that.”

State Senate Minority Leader and gubernatorial candidate John McKinney—who worked on and voted for the new, stricter gun laws—gets a vehement “No” from gun owners. In fact, many are demanding that “McKinney Must Go,” protesting outside events he attends and making their opinions heard on his campaign site. An effort is even being made to post signs demanding that “he must go” in every town in the state.

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has used social media to applaud Gov. Andrew Cuomo for New York’s tough gun-control laws. In protest, pro-gun forces are putting their money where their mouths are, posting photos on Boughton’s Facebook page with $100 bills, an offer to his campaign if he drops out of the mayors’ coalition.

State Sen. Toni Boucher (R-Wilton) also voted for the gun-control legislation, but her campaign’s lower profile has kept her out of the crossfire so far.

In January, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley addressed gun owners at a CCDL meeting, and although he doesn’t support the current gun laws, he didn’t go so far as to say he would repeal anything, which wasn’t enough to satisfy those in attendance.

Gun control is likely to be a bigger issue in the primary than in the general election as Republican candidates try to distinguish themselves while still trying to appeal to a broad constituency. Right now, it’s still too early to tell whom gun owners and large organizations like the CCDL will support.

A candidate they could get behind in the primary is someone who moves the state in the “direction of less restrictions on our second amendment,” says Wilson, who wants a governor who will take up laws that actually curtail gun violence—such as ensuring that sentencing for criminals is kept strict and that “the people who shouldn’t have guns don’t have guns.”

And while he believes a candidate who would actually work to repeal SB 1160 would be ideal, he knows gun owners need to be realistic. “Firearms are not the only issue,” he admits. “We have a state right now that’s economically devastated—people need jobs, they want a safe state to live in. So if we have somebody that has all of our ideal positions on firearms, great. Is that something we truly expect? No, but we’re hopeful that we’ll get at least better than what we have now.”

So far, the political ramifications of voting for gun-control legislation have been felt more clearly than not voting for it. In Colorado, for example, three lawmakers who voted for the state’s gun-control legislation were either recalled in an election or resigned prior to facing a recall.

The Sunlight Foundation, a reporting nonprofit that tracks money in politics among other tasks, has looked extensively into donations from the gun lobby on both sides and tracked the results. Reporter Nancy Watzman, who lives and reports on much of the gun lobby in Colorodo, says it was the first time lawmakers were recalled over votes. “This one issue definitely seems to speak deeply to people,” she says. “It’s not necessarily by any means a broad swath of the population, but a very active part of the population.”

The landscape of Connecticut can’t be compared to Colorado politically or otherwise, and isn’t an accurate reference for what could happen here. But it is an indicator for how much influence and money groups are willing to pour into the argument on a statewide level. Many will also be watching to see if there are ramifications of voting for anti-gun legislation.

Connecticut’s donations from gun lobbies in previous years mirror that of the rest of the nation, in that gun-rights money dwarfs gun-control money. On the national level, the Sunlight Foundation reports that the National Rifle Association alone spent more than $18 million to influence 2012 elections. In that election, $177,796 entered the state’s races from gun-rights groups, compared to $47,742 from gun-control groups. The majority of that funding went to candidates in federal races, though statewide candidates received more than $56,000 from gun-rights groups. If the CCDL or others find their perfect candidate, that number could easily rise.

“Across the board, no matter where you are, the backlash is really really motivating people, and severe from the gun groups,” says Watzman. “This issue is an incredibly strong element for grassroots action and support.”                  


Pro-Gun Voters Aiming to Impact 2014 Elections

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