Guns a muted issue in Connecticut congressional races

While Connecticut has helped make guns a national issue, there’s been only a little talk of them in the state’s congressional elections so far.

Connecticut candidates for Congress have largely split along party lines on the issue.

Democrats, all incumbents, favor stricter gun laws. All have received an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association, except for Rep. Joe Courtney, who was given a “D.”

Republicans running for the U.S. House of Representatives — with the exception of Dan Debicella, who is running against Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District — are all strong 2nd Amendment advocates and have received “A” ratings from the NRA.

Debicella, who has said he favors an expansion of FBI background checks of gun buyers, was given a “C.”

“I believe in every American’s right to own a gun,” Debicella said. “But we need common sense gun control to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those with mental illness. That’s why I support universal background checks for all gun purchases.”

Despite the clash of views on guns, the issue has been crowded out by the economy, taxes and, more recently, even U.S. efforts to destroy Islamic militants known as ISIS.

“It’s the real bread and butter issues that dominate right now,” said Gary Rose, head of the political science department at Sacred Heart University.

Guns were discussed during a debate in Danbury Thursday evening between the candidates for the 5th District congressional seat. Newtown, the town where  20 first-graders and six school employees were shot by Adam Lanza in December of 2012, is in the 5th District.

During the debate, Mark Greenberg, a Republican businessman from Litchfield who has earned an “A” rating from the NRA, said he joined his political rival, Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Esty, in supporting expanded background checks of gun purchasers.

“This must come as a surprise to the NRA,” Esty said.  “I do wonder if you sought and received the support.”

Greenberg said, “I was as shocked as anybody” by the high grade the NRA gave him.

“I didn’t even fill out a questionnaire,” he said, ” I’ll be downgraded to an ‘F’ after tonight.” The NRA did indeed downgrade Greenberg from an “A” to and “F” on Friday.

Greenberg’s campaign web site  says “the 2nd Amendment clearly protects the right of individuals to keep and bear arms.”

The subject of guns has also come up in the governor’s race and a few campaigns for state legislature seats. But Rose said neither Democrats nor Republicans in congressional races see much advantage in raising the issue of gun control, even as polls show a majority of Connecticut residents favor restrictions.

“Any candidate that gets into the issue of guns is going to get into an issue that people are not particularly involved in right now,” Rose said.

Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group, agreed.

“On the federal level, guns aren’t as much of an issue as they are on the state level,” he said. “The main focus is the economy. Candidates are not going to make firearms the focus of their campaigns.”

The state’s legislature, on a bipartisan basis, approved a tough gun control law last year after the Newtown shootings.

But Congress failed to move on even a modest restriction to gun ownership, in part because lawmakers feared the NRA’s clout in “red” states in this election year.

The NRA has spent more than $14 million on ads so far this year, most of them running in the states of vulnerable Democrats. But the gun-rights group has yet to spend a cent in Connecticut. Larry Keane, senior vice president of the Newtown- based National Shooting Sports Foundation, said there’s more discussion about guns in state races because Connecticut has approved a new gun control law and the GOP-led U.S. House of Representatives has not considered gun legislation.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation is still outraged at comments Gov. Dannel P. Malloy made on CNN in April about a push-back from gun manufacturers to Connecticut’s gun control bill.

“What this is about is the ability of the gun industry to sell as many guns to as many people as possible – even if they are deranged, even if they are mentally ill, even if they have a criminal background. They don’t care. They want to sell guns,”  Malloy said.

Unlike the NRA, the foundation does not rate candidates on their positions on guns, but it is airing a 30-second radio ad attacking the governor and has a direct-mail campaign opposing Malloy. The radio ad slams Malloy for his comments on CNN, and for raising taxes.

“We certainly intend to make gun owners and sportsmen aware of the governor’s positions, and how offensive his comments on CNN were,” Keane said.

Like the NRA, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League (CCDL) endorses candidates, and those endorsements split largely along party lines. Wilson said the CCDL has endorsed Greenberg and other Republicans running for Congress, including Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh, Matthew Corey and James Brown.

They are challenging  Esty,  Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, John Larson, D-1st District, and Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District respectively. The CCDL has also endorsed Daniel Reale, a Libertarian candidate who is also running against Courtney.

But, unlike the other Republicans, Decibella was not endorsed. “While Dan is certainly better than his opponent, we felt that there was not enough there to endorse him,” Wilson said.

“That said, if I was a gun owner that lived his district, I would support him over the deplorable Jim Himes.” Wilson said the endorsements were based on interviews with the Republican candidates, who were asked about their support for the 2nd Amendment, and “their political views as a whole.”

Meanwhile, Everytown Endorses Gun Sense, a gun-control group bankrolled by billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is backing Esty and Himes.

Bloomberg has committed to spend at least $50 million in tight races, as he seeks to counter the NRA’s influence this fall. But it’s unclear how much money, if any at all, Bloomberg will spend in Connecticut.

Po Murray, chairman of the Newtown Action Alliance, a group formed after the Sandy Hook shootings to lobby for gun control, said she disagrees the issue of guns won’t come up much in congressional elections, especially the race  between Esty and Greenberg that will determine who represents Newtown in the next Congress.  .

Murray predicted the “the gun issue will be front and center because it is an issue that is very important to many of us in Connecticut.”

Murray  also said Esty. a member of a Democratic gun control caucus in the House of Representatives,  “has stood by Newtown after our horrific tragedy, and I believe Connecticut voters will remember her compassion and her leadership.”

“After what happened in Newtown, I don’t think the gun issue is going to go away,” she said.

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