What should Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand do about guns? As a two-term U.S. representative from upstate New York, she had a perfect pro–Second Amendment voting record. A week ago, she admitted to Newsday that she kept two rifles under her bed for family defense. This has not sat well with the gun-prohibition crowd, although when Newsday put the question to a reader vote, 97 percent did not mind her owning guns for this purpose.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence publicly lobbied Governor Paterson not to appoint Gillibrand to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. The New York City media, including of course the Times, have been throwing a hissy fit about her skepticism towards additional gun control.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, of Long Island, the doyenne of anti-gun advocates in the House, vows to challenge Gillibrand in the 2010 primary. A Quinnipiac poll of New York Democrats found that 34 percent said they would support McCarthy and 24 percent Gillibrand, with 39 percent undecided. Should Gillibrand announce that she has changed her mind about gun control?
To a degree, she has already begun doing so. In the last Congress, as a House member, Gillibrand cosponsored a bill to codify the Tiahrt Amendment, an appropriations rider saying that, while gun-trace data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives must be shared with local law enforcement when needed for particular criminal investigations, the data are not a public record that anyone can access.
One intended consequence of this proviso has been that mayors such as Michael Bloomberg of New York City and Richard Daley of Chicago couldn’t get trace data to use in their lawsuits against firearms manufacturers for the expenses incurred in dealing with criminals who use firearms. But Gillibrand now says she won’t support the Tiahrt Amendment again unless it is “fixed” in unspecified ways so that it does not harm law enforcement.
Before she makes further concessions to the gun-prohibition lobby, she might consider what happened to the last politician who caved in to McCarthyism. The 1994 elections were a Republican landslide; afterwards, President Clinton observed that “the NRA is the reason Republicans control the House.” Among the freshman Republicans of the NRA landslide was Dan Frisa of Long Island. He campaigned and won as a pro-Second Amendment candidate.
In the spring of 1996, Frisa voted, along with a large majority of the House, to repeal the 1994 ban on so-called “assault weapons.” Though the anti-gun lobby took pains to characterize “assault weapons” as fully automatic machine guns — ones that fire continuously when you hold down the trigger — they are in fact semi-automatic, firing one shot per trigger pull, like many hunting rifles. The only difference between an “assault rifle” and a semi-automatic hunting rifle is that the former has two or more disapproved cosmetic features, which include a pistol grip, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor, and a grenade launcher. These features may sound off-putting, but they’re virtually useless to a criminal.
This vote outraged Carolyn McCarthy, a nurse whose husband was one of six people murdered in December 1993 by a black racist on a Long Island Railroad commuter train. The killer had purchased his handgun in California, after passing the state’s background check and after the 15-day waiting period required by state law. McCarthy announced that she would challenge Frisa, and Frisa crumbled. He declared that he had voted to repeal the existing ban only because he actually favored an even more comprehensive ban, and he introduced his own prohibition bill.
Voters could see that McCarthy had a sincere and consistent position on gun control, while Frisa changed his position based on transparent political calculation. Frisa’s flip-flop undoubtedly made voters wonder which of his other supposed convictions he would abandon when it became politically useful. McCarthy crushed him in the general election by 58 to 41 percent. Frisa tried to return to Congress in 1998 but dropped out before the primary election; he tried again in 2002, losing in the primary.
Thanks to the New York media, if there’s one thing that New York voters know about Kirsten Gillibrand, it’s that she’s pro-gun. For most of those voters, the gun issue is not a top priority one way or the other; New York has elected quite a few pro-gun candidates, including Ronald Reagan twice, Sen. Al D’Amato three times, Sen. James Buckley once, and Gov. George Pataki, who ran as a pro-gun candidate and unseated Mario Cuomo in 1994, three times. But the voters’ judgment of a candidate’s character is always a priority — all the more so for swing voters, who tend to be less ideological. In a match-up with anti-gun Republican Rep. Peter King (rated D by the NRA), pro-gun Gillibrand would win by 16 points, according to the Quinnipiac poll.