ALBANY — New York Democrats can thank a Texan for injecting a nettlesome topic into the simmering debate over gun control.
This would be one of the Democrats running for his party’s presidential nomination — former Congressman Beto O’Rourke.
“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said in a Democratic candidate debate aired Sept. 12.
In proposing the government-directed confiscation of military-style, semi-automatic rifles, O’Rourke swerved down a path not even Gov. Andrew Cuomo — the author of one of the most restrictive gun control measures in the nation — has taken.
Cuomo’s legislation, the highly controversial New York SAFE Act, has divided the state, with polls showing most upstate residents outside the region’s largest cities oppose the law, while folks in the New York City region, a bastion of anti-gun sentiment, favor it.
Many upstate county sheriffs are on record in opposition to the SAFE Act. And some Democrats who get elected in rural regions, such as Assemblyman Billy Jones of Chateaugay, a former corrections officer, have come out against it as well.
Talk of gun confiscation, thanks to O’Rourke’s debate comment, will now complicate the discussion over firearms, opening a new Pandora’s Box.
This is ironic because just one month ago Cuomo faulted the Democrats running for the White House for failing to stake out a clear position on gun control.
“I can’t even tell you what the position of the Democratic presidential candidates are and I follow this stuff every day,” the Democratic governor said.
Well, as the expression goes, be careful what you wish for -- because the lanky guy from the Lone Star State just put confiscation on the table.
Cuomo has made it clear he is no fan of military-style rifles, arguing hunters don’t need them to shoot game, though many hunters dispute his assertions. Cuomo recently said such weapons were designed to “kill the largest number of people in the shortest period of time.”
He wants them banned nationally. But he has stopped short of calling for outright confiscation, just as his party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, did in 2016.
Explaining in a recent radio interview that confiscation is not on his agenda, Cuomo said: “What is the need to do it if they were already banned six years ago?”
Some suggest that many Democratic politicians will be carefully assessing the pubic reaction to O’Rourke’s plug for confiscation as they fine-tune their positions on gun control.
Larry Levy, director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University and veteran observer of New York politics, said polling shows aggressive gun control is popular with many voters in suburban swing districts, particularly women. For those voters who find such weapons “odious and dangerous to children,” there may be little distinction between buyback programs and confiscation, he said. “They just want to see those guns that can shred a classroom in seconds gone,” Levy said.
The thought here is that while Cuomo accuses the candidates of being vague on gun control, perhaps he could reveal what he thinks of O’Rourke’s suggestion, since the governor has contended “weapons of war have no place on our streets.”
As it is, the Texan’s advocacy for confiscation, as Tom King, the director of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, sees it, mirrors Cuomo’s own thinking on guns.
“I think they are absolutely on the same track,” King said when asked if he discerns differences or similarities in the respective views of Cuomo and O’Rourke.
A board member of the National Rifle Association, King said the confiscation call will likely send gun sales shooting higher. He noted that a resolution recently passed by the San Francisco city council, condemning the NRA as a ‘terrorist” organization, has backfired on that city’s progressive politicians, with the NRA now enjoying a spike in memberships.
When it comes to firearms, the upstate region is a virtual alternative universe to the downstate region, said Doug Muzzio, a veteran political science professor at Baruch College in Manhattan.
As a part-time resident of upstate Delaware County, Muzzio said he thinks nothing of it when he hears the rat-tat-tat of gunfire near his home, concluding it’s simply neighbors enjoying target practice. The reaction to gunshots is decidedly different, he pointed out, when he is in New York City.
“It’s going to cause agita in the Democratic Party to have to confront the confiscation issue now because they’d rather talk about almost anything else -- foreign policy, health care -- than this,” Muzzio said.
Cuomo’s camp, incidentally, doesn’t appear to be particularly eager to talk about confiscation. My emailed query regarding O’Rourke’s provocative position, sent to a Cuomo aide, drew no response.
For his part, O’Rourke cites a recent wave of mass shootings in explaining how he evolved into a confiscation proponent. So far, though, O’Rourke has yet to insist his rival Democrats take a Cuomo-like pledge on gun control.
But when it comes to anti-firearms zealotry, the Texan just left even Cuomo in the dust, without having to explain precisely how he would accomplish the confiscation of AR-15 and AK-47 rifles from people who don’t want the government to take them away.
King suggested that any legislative gambit to confiscate the rifles would run into a brick wall in the courts. The most popular gun in this country, King noted, is the AR-15.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com