New York's landmark gun control law opened a political fissure that's still visible upstate.
Polls have shown majority support for the SAFE Act spearheaded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo after the 2012 school shooting rampage in neighboring Connecticut, but it is intensely disliked in parts of upstate New York with strong hunting and gun cultures.
Anti-SAFE Act signs are a common sight on rural lawns, and anti-SAFE Act rallies are being held this year from the shadow of the state Capitol to one scheduled this month in a Rochester park. Hundreds packed a firehouse near Troy weeks ago for a rally featuring a full slate of local politicians. More than a year after the law's passage, resentments linger.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino speaks during a gun rights rally at the Empire State Plaza in Albany. Polls have shown majority support for the SAFE Act spearheaded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo after the 2012 school shooting rampage in neighboring Connecticut, but it is intensely disliked in parts of upstate New York with strong hunting and gun cultures.
"Another unreasonable government intrusion into our lives for no purpose other than political gain," said Richard Murray, sipping a morning coffee at a diner an hour west of the Capitol in rural Duanesburg.
"Too much government," said Al Durfee, sitting next to Murray at the counter. "You think you're going to pass all these laws and make everything hunky-dory, and it's not going to happen."
Some analysts doubt that the anger in traditional Republican strongholds can move the needle much in a governor's race in which Democrat Cuomo is heavily favored.
A lot of opponents say they're being underestimated.
"What the polls don't show is the motivation of the voters," said Stephen Aldstadt, president of the Shooters Committee on Political Education, which wants the law repealed. "And I think those that say they support the SAFE Act are likely to be very blase about it, but the opposition is very motivated."
The law bans high-capacity magazines and the sale of many semi-automatic firearms and requires those who already own such weapons to register them with authorities.
Opponents who see it as an infringement on civil liberties say their message is mainstream enough that resolutions opposing the law were approved by 52 counties - essentially every upstate county except for Albany and Tompkins, home to the university city of Ithaca.
The National Rifle Association-affiliated New York State Rifle and Pistol Association reports that its membership has roughly doubled to 44,000 in a year. Group president Tom King said he's never experienced so many people calling to volunteer and sending in donations to help fund the group's anti-SAFE Act lawsuit. King said the group will help Republican candidate Rob Astorino with fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Already, Astorino appears to be using the issue to rally his base by addressing an April rally outside the state Capitol and choosing an outspoken detractor of the law as his running mate, Chemung County Sheriff Christopher Moss.
But it's a tricky issue for Astorino as well as Cuomo.
New York voters support the measure by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, according to a Siena College poll in March. Support in New York City was overwhelming and strong in the surrounding suburbs. Upstate New York is alone in its opposition, which the poll puts at 52 percent.
While polls showed Cuomo's rating dipped after the law's passage last year, the Siena poll's Steven Greenberg doesn't see the SAFE Act playing a major role in the governor's election. Guns are not a top-tier issue for the majority of swing voters, he said. As for the law's opponents, "these are voters who are not likely to vote for Cuomo to begin with."
Political consultant Bruce Gyory said the risk for Astorino is that if he pushes the issue too hard, there could be backlash from areas where gun control has more support. Democrats already do far better than Republicans among female voters in recent statewide elections, and Gyory said gun control tends to be something that moves female swing voters in suburban districts.
"Could it help Astorino consolidate his base upstate? Yes," Gyory said. "But if he makes too big an issue of it, it could hurt him substantially in the downstate suburbs and could completely wipe him out in New York City."
In fact, the governor's race so far has revolved far more around economic issues and education than gun control. And a state Legislature led by downstate lawmakers has moved onto other issues this year as they prepare for their own elections in November.
"It's not going to affect the election," said Murray, "because upstate doesn't count."