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Nathan McMurray walks a fine line on guns as he campaigns for 27th District

The congressional candidate and the comedian hit it off at first. Nathan McMurray and Michael Ian Black joked and talked politics and it all went well – until the topic turned to the right to keep and bear arms.

"He really blasted me for saying I was for the Second Amendment," recalled McMurray, a Democrat.

"It was a slightly awkward scene," added McMurray's friend Matt Sabuda, who saw the confrontation unfold when the politician and the comedian met at Buffalo's Helium comedy club last spring.

Black, who did not respond to a request for comment, lashed into McMurray even though the Democratic candidate favors a ban on assault weapons, a ban on bullet-spewing "bump stocks" and universal background checks for gun buyers – stances that put him far to the left of his Republican opponent, Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence.

And if Collins has his way, that awkward scene between McMurray and Black will lead to more awkward moments for the Democrat.

Noting that McMurray tweeted a picture of his meeting with Black, Collins spokeswoman Natalie Baldassarre said: "Nate can’t have it both ways. He can’t proudly stand with anti-Second Amendment Hollywood elites to raise attention and money, and then pretend not to support the very thing they are promoting."

Such are the difficulties McMurray faces in trying to strike a careful stance on an issue that's important to voters in the conservative, largely rural district he hopes to represent in the next Congress.

Those difficulties hit McMurray left and right last week after he took to Twitter to post a picture of himself skeet shooting.

A bipertisan team from the Erie County Board of Elections began their count of the 2018 absentee ballots, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. They began with the 5588 ballots from the 27th District. A cart is filled with ballots. These are ballots from Clarence. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"Don't pander to the idiot element," posted a Democrat who said she was "disappointed" with McMurray's post.

Meantime, a gun rights activist reposted McMurray's skeet-shooting picture and pronounced it "total BS."

Of course, Twitter is not the place for nuance, which is just what McMurray has been seeking on the gun issue since the early days of his campaign.

"I think the Second Amendment is a check on tyranny," he said to an audience of Democrats in Canandaigua in March.

But then he added: "We are in a strange position in America where we have so many students dying and so many people dying. And there's talk about hardening schools or getting more guns. I'm worried about a world where we have hardened schools. And then what's next? Hardened synagogues? Hardened churches? Hardened movie theaters? Hardened universities? Are we going to live in a fort?"

Further nuance can be seen in McMurray's stance on gun control legislation.

He criticizes New York's SAFE Act, the strict gun control measure that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo rushed into law in early 2013.

"A lot of people feel it was forced upon them," McMurray said of the state law, which broadened the definition of assault weapons, limited the capacity of magazines and included a range of other measures. "I thought it was feel-good legislation that wasn't well thought-out."

Yet McMurray also supports a federal assault weapons ban, adding that it should be more carefully crafted than the one in the SAFE Act. He said in an interview that weapons such as the AR-15 – used by both responsible gun owners and mass shooters – could still be permitted in narrow circumstances, perhaps with a special license.

But "bump stocks" should be banned because they allow people to shoot indiscriminately into large crowds, McMurray said, adding that background checks should cover all gun purchases.

"I want to make sure that the most dangerous and violent weapons aren't in the hands of the most dangerous people," he said.

To hear the Collins camp tell it, though, McMurray has staked out a radical anti-gun agenda and then tried to hide it. Baldassarre, the Collins spokeswoman, noted that McMurray even deleted one of the tweets where he advocated strict gun control measures, as well as a part of his website where he did the same.

"Nate McMurray knows just how extreme and out of touch his anti-Second Amendment position is with New York voters, and that’s why he’s scrambling to hide it," she said.

McMurray said the deletions were just routine changes.

And McMurray's stance on gun control is clear enough to New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, which plans on endorsing him Monday.

"I was so impressed with Nate that I've been helping him as much as I can," said Paul McQuillen, the group's upstate coordinator, who said that his group, too, has no intention of repealing the Second Amendment.

But Black, the comedian, wants that to happen.

"The solution is to repeal and replace the Second Amendment," he tweeted in March. "Make gun ownership a privilege, not a right."

McMurray's association with people such as Black could come back to haunt him, no matter what else the candidate says on the gun issue, said gun right supporters who live in New York's 27th district.

The Democrat may talk about supporting the Second Amendment, "but it's just a show," said Harold W. "Budd" Schroeder, a longtime gun rights activist from Lancaster who calls himself a friend of Collins. "Gun people don't see Nate McMurray as an advocate for our cause."

And there are a lot of gun people in the 27th District, added John Pauer, Republican chairman in Livingston County. He estimated that no more than 30 percent of the voters in his rural county favor additional gun control measures.

"There's no question the gun issue will help Collins in the rural counties," the Livingston County GOP chairman added.

Still, Pauer said voters in Livingston County have a "mixed" view of Collins. That's because federal agents in August charged the congressman, his son Cameron Collins and Cameron's prospective father-in-law with multiple felonies tied to an alleged insider trading scheme. Collins has maintained his innocence and is fighting the charges.

Collins made headlines a year earlier when he said he traveled his district carrying a pistol, but he can't do that anymore. Under the bail conditions that were set after Collins' release from custody, he had to surrender his firearms – a fact that McMurray happily noted.

"I'm the guy in the race with a right to bear arms," the Democrat added.

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