Gun rights advocates are coming to the defense of Common Council Member Ulysees O. Wingo and considering legal action against the Buffalo Public Schools, should it decide to ban the Buffalo Democrat from district property for 18 months for bringing a loaded gun into a school.
The group, 2AWNY, a Second Amendment advocacy organization, has offered Wingo assistance in his case, which was ratcheted up a notch this week when it was learned a ban would prevent him from attending his son’s high school graduation later this month.
The case has not only stirred up controversy in the community — but is shaping up as a prime opportunity for pro-gun groups to challenge New York’s gun control laws in court.
“I think what this is all about is the School Board imposing a morality on Mr. Wingo,” said Steve Felano, civil rights advocate for 2AWNY.
“They are taking things way too far," Felano said. "This is a great opportunity to raise the issue in the federal court system.”
It’s already being debated in the court of public opinion.
On one side are those who say Wingo — who has a permit to carry a concealed weapon — made a mistake when he brought the gun to an event at Riverside High School last month, but did the right thing by checking it at the office, where it was stored in a safe.
“There was absolutely no criminal intent and, therefore, it should be a non-issue,” said Harold “Budd” Schroeder, chair emeritus of the Erie County chapter of the Shooters Committee on Political Education.
“He did what any reasonable person should do when he makes a mistake,” Schroeder said. “What’s the big hubbub about it?”
On the other side, though, are those who see this as a serious issue in an age in which the nation’s schools are besieged by gun violence and mass shootings.
“I like the council member, I really do, and I don’t oppose people who are licensed gun carriers, but with rights come responsibilities,” said Paul McQuillen, upstate coordinator for New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. “One of those responsibilities is to know where your gun is at all times. It’s not an excuse to say, ‘I didn’t realize I had it on me.’ ”
State penal law bans guns on school grounds, except in cases where they are carried by law enforcement or security guards. Up until earlier this year, districts had the authority to let teachers with appropriate licenses carry guns, but that was banned by the State Legislature as part of a gun control package approved in January.
Though Wingo “did commit a crime” when he brought a loaded gun to Riverside, Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn said he used “prosecutorial discretion” and “a little common sense” in deciding not to charge Wingo.
Flynn noted the steps Wingo took to safely store the gun and the fact that he had verbal authorization when the principal told Wingo he could put the gun in the school safe.
“That’s an absolutely reasonable position,” said attorney Paul Cambria, one of the area’s leading criminal defense lawyers, who is not involved in the Wingo case. “It appears that it was clearly unintentional on his part.”
Still, Superintendent Kriner Cash barred Wingo from district grounds and the Board of Education is now considering a resolution to suspend the council member from district schools and buildings for a period of no less than 18 months.
What’s complicated the matter further — and stirred debate in the community — is that the ban would prevent Wingo from attending his son’s graduation from Hutchinson Central Technical High School June 24.
Wingo, who is running for re-election in the Masten District, requested permission to attend.
“It seems like the punishment does not fit the crime,” said Schroeder, the gun rights advocate.
“That’s bizarre,” Cambria said. “No. 1, that is a specific once-in-a-lifetime situation. It’s a big deal and it hurts the kids, because they want their parents there to witness that.
“That really seems like overkill and you wonder what the motivation is for that," Cambria said. "If they want to ban him give him a reprieve for that day."
McQuillen, from New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, did not want to comment on the decision of the School Board, but acknowledged the dilemma.
“I’ve been tossing this back and forth,” McQuillen said. “It’s a very tricky situation for both gun owners and gun-violence prevention advocates. For one thing, nobody wants to restrict the rights of licensed gun owners, but on the other hand we want to do all we can to protect and safeguard students.”
The School Board is expected to vote on the resolution at its next meeting on June 19.
What the public may not realize is that parents have been barred from attending graduation ceremonies in the past for incidents that were far less egregious, said School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold.
And district policy would require a student be expelled for at least a year if they brought a firearm into a district school, she said.
“How do we look at our students and ignore that behavior when we would come down on them?” Nevergold said.
But Nevergold also stressed the need for the board to take a tough stance given the serious issue of gun violence in the nation's schools.
“What the board is doing is really setting some expectations to how we respond to incidents that happen in school, whether its by a student or a family member or a community member,” Nevergold said.
“It’s not comfortable,” she said, “but those of us at this point who support the resolution feel strongly about the safety of children and about adults being responsible — and taking responsibility.”