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Candidates for governor using SAFE Act to show their philosophical differences

ALBANY – When controversial issues get resolved at the Capitol, people here usually move on.

The gay marriage debate, as divisive an issue as it once was, ended with its passage.

Not so with the SAFE Act gun control law, which today lingers two nearly two years after its passage and has come to define in the final days of the governor’s race the sharp philosophical differences between Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republican Rob Astorino.

Polls have shown support for the law that further regulates assault-style weapons, ammunition sales, background checks and mental health status of gun buyers.

But critics of the law say polls are blind to an issue they believe will bring out thousands of New Yorkers to the polls next Tuesday. Especially upstate.

“The anger has not gone away. There are still rallies being held. The traffic on the internet is still unbelievably heavy. This is an issue, as we predicted from day one, that will be a huge issue in the upcoming election,’’ said Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association.

Gun control advocates believe Astorino, who has made much during his months on the campaign trail about working to change if not repeal Cuomo’s SAFE Act if he became governor, has latched onto the wrong issue.

“The SAFE Act is so far down the priority list for voters throughout the state, even in upstate, I’m not sure why Astorino is focusing on this except to pander to the corporate gun lobby,’’ said Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.

As any upstate driver knows, anti-SAFE Act signs are still a ubiquitous presence on lawns, especially in rural and suburban neighborhoods. Indeed, there are many political insiders who believe Cuomo did so poorly in many counties upstate in the September Democratic primary not because of his problems with the liberal base of the party but because of his SAFE Act law.

Yet, a Siena College poll last month found that New Yorkers care most about jobs and taxes, and that the SAFE Act and hydrofracking, two issues with highly vocal support and dissent, each capture about 1 percent of the response when voters were asked to name the one issue that will decide who they will support for governor.

King, whose group is state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, believes such college polls have not properly structured the questions to voters about the gun law and that the polls undercount a growing and otherwise disaffected group of New Yorkers who haven’t gotten involved in politics before the SAFE Act.

On Tuesday, Cuomo’s state Democratic Party released a new ad that, for the first time, solely targets the SAFE Act as an issue against Astorino. It is pointed in its claim: “In the race for governor, the safety of all New Yorkers is at stake.’’

The ad notes the gun law, passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, is the “smartest” gun law in the nation that is also “saving lives.”

The Democratic ad, noting Astorino’s claims of wanting to repeal the law, called the Republican’s views “dangerously wrong.’’

Still, even seasoned gun rights lobbyists know the chances of repealing the gun law are zero – whether or not Astorino is elected -- because the overwhelmingly Democratic-controlled Assembly would block any such effort.

Yet, that has not stopped either the Cuomo or Astorino camp from trying to seize on the “repeal” issue. More likely, though, is that portions of the law could be struck down by the courts, which have already raised red flags about provisions reducing the maximum number of bullets that can be put in a gun’s magazine from 10 to seven.

In an interview Tuesday, Astorino said the law should be repealed and a focus put on shoring up funding for mental health services and tougher penalties for crimes committed with guns. “A bad law is a bad law,’’ he said.

Astorino says the SAFE Act will be a “motivating factor (next Tuesday) for legal gun owners who have been demonized by it and Cuomo and his millions of dollars not only to make them look like criminals but made them into criminals with the SAFE Act.’’

As he has put 32,000 miles on an SUV traveling the state, Astorino said the gun law is generating more, not less, interest among voters the longer it is on the books. “By far the question I’ve been asked most in upstate New York and Western New York is what is my position on the SAFE Act,’’ he said.

The state Republican Party, in response to the new ad Tuesday, sought to remind voters how Cuomo rapidly pushed through the gun law with no public debate or legal, three-day aging period of the legislation “in his rush” for bragging rights to be the first governor to get new gun laws passed after the Sandy Hook shooting.

The GOP noted that hundreds of communities across New York have since passed resolutions opposing the SAFE Act and that firearm shootings are up in New York City. “Feeling safer yet,’’ the GOP asked.

Like many social issues, the SAFE Act has divided voters between upstate and downstate and, within upstate, between upstate urban and upstate rural voters. The governor does not make it his focus when he travels to upstate areas, while Astorino, and his running mate, Chris Moss, the Chemung County sheriff, have held session after session with gun clubs and other Second Amendment rights groups. It is a topic that flows off Astorino’s lips with ease when he hits upstate communities, though, interestingly, he did not make it an issue in his one and only television debate held last week in Buffalo.

The new pro-SAFE Act ad released by Cuomo’s Democratic Party Tuesday may risk alienating some voters, but that only depends on where it runs. On Tuesday afternoon, a Cuomo spokesman was not commenting and a Democratic Party spokesman would not say if the ad would run in upstate markets or be confined to downstate markets – where the SAFE Act is more popular.

“As a matter of policy, I don’t discuss media strategy,’’ said Peter Kauffmann, a Democratic Party spokesman. The governor’s team, in releasing a new ad, has obviously done polling that must show Cuomo the new ad is not a genuine risk and likely benefits his campaign.

Still, the SAFE Act has not been politically good for all. Many Republicans and Democrats believe Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, lost his GOP Senate primary in September, at least in part, because he supported Cuomo and voted for the SAFE Act.

Astorino is doing what he can, with a limited campaign budget and a strategy that also seeks to woo middle-of-the-road voters, to tap into lingering anger over the SAFE Act. And there is lingering anger. Rallies, while never huge, still occur. Besides planning for hunts, gun owners these days are also holding their first lessons on get-out-the-vote efforts. On the back of one pick-up seen driving on an upstate road earlier this week, the driver had three bumper stickers: one calling for repeal of the SAFE Act, the other calling for the ouster of Cuomo and the other professing his allegiance to the Boston Red Sox.

Still, with Astorino trailing in the polls, the National Rifle Association, whose members would have the most interest in repealing the SAFE Act, have all but stayed out of the governor’s race. Last week, the NRA contributed $5,000 to Astorino, a blip of what it has spent over the years in contested races.

King said after a speech to supporters in the Hudson Valley last week, an audience member came up to say he organized a group of voters to turn out next week to cast their anti-SAFE Act protest vote. The man told him it was the first time in his adult life he ever got involved in any political cause.

“They are working diligently to come out and vote,’’ King said of the SAFE Act protestors he’s made this summer and fall.

Cuomo commands a lead of about 20 points over Astorino in the most recent polls, so it is uncertain what kind of ultimate effect the SAFE Act will have next Tuesday. In the final weeks of the campaign, it is clear from the governor’s travel schedule that he is not counting on a number of upstate counties to back his re-election.

Still, Cuomo, who calls the SAFE Act “common sense gun reform, is not shying away from the gun issue, especially with downstate voters. His campaign spokesman, Matt Wing, in an email Tuesday provided a series of numbers about the SAFE Act’s enforcement.

Among them: 80 percent of people charged with SAFE-Act related offenses would have been accused of a crime prior to the law’s passage. There have been 3,322 charges under the gun law; of those, 2,667 were for felony firearm possession, a crime that would have been considered a misdemeanor before the SAFE Act was passed in early 2013. Of those 2,677 possession charges, 90 percent were in New York City, mostly Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Moreover, the law has kept 34,500 people from being able to buy a gun for at least five years because they have been deemed by a mental health professional to either be a safety threat to themselves or others.

Gun rights groups say the SAFE Act is only the first step for Cuomo and that more measures they consider anti-Second Amendment are coming from the Democrat if he is re-elected. Cuomo, for his part, goes out of his way to note that he has hunted and owns a Remington shotgun and that he is targeting illegal gun use and not what he calls legitimate rights of gun owners in New York.

Gun control groups say more is needed than the SAFE Act. Barrett, from New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said her group in the coming legislative session will push a “safe storage” gun law, which she defined as mandating that guns be locked in a safe or disabled with an external lock or have no bullets in their chambers.

While she insists Astorino won’t be helped by anger over the SAFE Act and that Cuomo will ultimately gain votes next Tuesday because of the law, Barrett dismissed claims of a large upstate voice against the statute.

“The corporate gun lobby has been good at spending money on lawn signs and distributing them to people,’’ she said. “They have created this sort of mass hysteria to whip up fear because that’s what the gun lobby thrives on.”