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Higgins to give NRA donations to anti-gun charities

WASHINGTON – Rep. Brian Higgins isn't exactly sticking to his guns.

After accepting $5,000 in donations from the National Rifle Association between 2006 and 2012, the Democratic lawmaker from Buffalo announced on Facebook earlier this month that he now plans to donate that money to local and national organizations dedicated to fighting for what he called "common sense gun safety policies."

Higgins portrayed the move as proof of an honest change of heart, as events – one mass shooting after another – convinced him that Congress should do something more about gun control.

"As we’ve witnessed the growth of unconscionable gun violence in our elementary schools, clubs, on our streets and even at a concert event, we know that lives are at stake with each day that passes," he said in his Facebook post. "The fact is that the federal government is not doing nearly enough, and accordingly I have intensified my efforts related to common sense gun reform."

But to hear Harold "Budd" Schroeder tell it, Higgins' move is an act of betrayal.

"He told me he was pro-gun," said Schroeder, chairman emeritus of the Shooters Committee on Political Education, or SCOPE. "That was a lie."

First elected to Congress in 2004, Higgins took $1,000 from the NRA for his first re-election campaign, $2,000 in 2008 and $1,000 in 2010 and again in 2012.

At the time, he said in an interview, he was continuing his long-term support of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

But over time – and especially after a deranged young man murdered 20 elementary school children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. – Higgins said he came to realize that an absolute position opposing gun control was the wrong position.

"I think it's all about the events that occurred," Higgins said. "It's the magnitude and frequency of these shootings."

And so, without much notice, Higgins started siding with the vast majority of Democrats who favor stronger gun control measures.

Days after the Newtown shooting, he issued an angry statement lashing into the NRA's argument that armed guards in schools would be the best way to prevent such tragedies.

"One thing is absolutely clear: Turning schools into armed compounds cannot be part of any solution," he said at the time. “I am committed to working toward real change to protect our children, and believe proposals should consider all factors, including meaningful reforms to our gun laws."

Higgins immediately stopped taking NRA contributions and started supporting legislation that the gun group opposed, such as a bill that would allow the federal government to make grants to states and localities to fund gun buybacks, as well as another bill that would create a special congressional committee to study the causes of gun violence.

He started voting reliably on gun control measures, and before long, the congressman who had been endorsed by the NRA a decade ago now has a 100 percent rating from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

But after an armed man shot makeshift automatic weapons at a crowd at a country music concert in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, murdering 58 people and leaving more than 500 injured, Higgins could no longer stand the thought that he once took NRA money.

Hence his Facebook post, in which he said to his constituents: "While I cannot change the past, I can demonstrate to you – through my actions – that I am listening and fighting."

As a result, Schroeder – who helped Higgins get the NRA endorsement a decade ago – is fighting mad.

Noting that Higgins also won the Conservative Party endorsement early in his political career, Schroeder said: "I guess he switched from being a Conservative to being a Democrat."

And as a result, Higgins went from getting an A+ from the NRA for his gun rights voting record to an F in recent years.

"He turned on me," said Schroeder, who contends that Higgins' turnabout was tied to the redrawing of his congressional district in 2012.

For his first four terms in Congress, Higgins represented a district that included most but not all of the heavily Democratic city of Buffalo along with more conservative Chautauqua County. Now, though, the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls form the base of his district, making it much more heavily Democratic.

"What he did was the epitome of 'What's in it for me?'" Schroeder said.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., made a similar turnabout when she went from representing the Hudson Valley in the House to representing the entire state.

For his part, Higgins said his views on guns evolved in a natural way.

"What I rejected before was a knee-jerk reaction," in which lawmakers immediately proposed legislation that hadn't been thought through when a gun tragedy happened, Higgins said in the interview.

But over time, Higgins said he came to see the NRA responding to reasonable gun control measures in a knee-jerk way, too, and blocking sensible measures such as background checks for those who buy weapons at gun shows.

Those sensible measures wouldn't affect law-abiding citizens who buy guns for hunting or self protection, Higgins said.

"Nobody wants to take the guns of sportsmen" or those who buy guns to protect their homes, Higgins said.

The Buffalo congressman also said he's never shot a gun in his life. In contrast, Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican from Clarence who represents many Buffalo suburbs and farmland to the east, noted earlier this year that he has carried a gun with him in his district for self-protection.

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