Ask either of the Republican contestants for the new 27th Congressional District about gun rights, and they'll tell you point-blank they're better than the other guy in defending the Second Amendment.
Iraq War veteran David Bellavia points to his unequivocal support of gun rights and rattles off a list of credentials he says qualifies him in a region where hunters and sportsmen abound.
Former County Executive Chris Collins points to the gun permit he has carried for 25 years, the four pistols he owns and the backing provided by the National Rifle Association when he unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1998.
But now Bellavia is trying to outgun Collins over just who defends Second Amendment rights and who doesn't. He charges that Collins -- the former Erie County executive he will face in the June 26 GOP primary for the seat held by Democrat Kathleen C. Hochul -- signed on four years ago to an effort sponsored by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to restrict the freedom of gun owners.
In a Sunday speech to the Niagara County Sportsmen's Association, Bellavia attacked Collins for acting as a founding member of Bloomberg's County Executives Against Illegal Guns. The organization acted as a companion group to Mayors Against Illegal Guns and aimed to develop county legislation and enforcement efforts to prevent guns from falling into the hands of criminals, according to a 2008 announcement of its formation.
But Bellavia said he viewed the organization differently. He said both Bloomberg groups opposed the National Right to Carry Reciprocity Act, which permits approved gun owners to carry weapons in all states. He said the two groups called the legislation "dangerous" and claimed that a national reciprocity standard "undermines public safety."
"I disagree," Bellavia told the sportsmen. "Depriving Americans of their fundamental right to self-defense undermines public safety; depriving us of our constitutional rights undermines what it means to be an American."
But Collins argues that his credentials are just as strong, and that his brief dalliance with Bloomberg stemmed from "trickery" and his own naivete when he first became county executive in 2007.
"I said I was against illegal guns," he said. "Isn't everyone against illegal guns?"
But Collins said he got "snookered" into joining the group and withdrew within two weeks once he discovered it supported gun legislation he found restrictive and against the Second Amendment.
"I was on that list all of two weeks, and then I lambasted them for their trickery and subterfuge," he said, "and David Bellavia knows that.
"At some point in our lives, we all get tricked into something," he added.
The former county executive reiterated that he gained a 100 percent approval rating from the NRA when he ran for Congress against Democrat John J. LaFalce in 1998 and expects to gain an identical rating should he win in November.
Bellavia, however, said he views Collins' membership in the Bloomberg group as a "defining difference between me and my opponent."
"I would never compromise my principles to cozy up to Mike Bloomberg," he added. "Not for any reason."