When the Connecticut Citizens Defense League endorsed Republican Tom Foley in the 2010 race for governor, it went unnoticed. The gun owners’ group was just a year old, and gun control barely registered as an issue in Foley’s close contest with Democrat Dannel P. Malloy.
Now, it is in rapid-growth mode, with a membership that its leadership says has quadrupled to 10,300 in the year since the Sandy Hook shooting spurred passage of restrictions on purchasing guns, ammunition and large-capacity magazines.
Members are getting tutored about the political process, learning how to become delegates to nominating conventions. With 201,038 pistol-permit holders and tens of thousands more owners of rifles and shotguns in Connecticut, they could be a potent voting bloc in 2014.
If only they can find a candidate.
With gun owners energized as never before, they have no obvious champion in the emerging field of gubernatorial challengers to Malloy, a hero to the gun-control movement. Most of the early GOP contenders provoke reactions ranging from disdain to disinterest.
Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield, the best-known declared candidate for governor, tops the list of undesirables. Not only did he vote for the bill, he played a visible role in negotiating its bipartisan passage with the Democratic majority.
“He has a special problem,” said Peter Kuck, a long-time gun-rights activist.
Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton voted for the bill. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton carries the black mark of associating with New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Like Foley, they have exploratory campaigns.
“Boughton is a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, so he’s a non-starter,” said Scott Wilson, the president and co-founder of the Defense League. “Boucher voted for the bill, so she’s a non-starter.”
That seems to leave Foley as gun owners’ early favorite, but only by default. He is not embracing the cause, offering mild, vague criticism of the bill Malloy signed on April 4, surrounded by relatives of the Sandy Hook victims. He makes no promise to push for repeal.
Not surprisingly, Wilson offers a tepid assessment of Foley’s appeal.
“He’s somebody who didn’t vote for the bill. He had no opportunity to vote for the bill,” Wilson said. “It automatically puts him ahead of the two that did.”
That’s not nearly enough for Rich Burgess.
He is the president of Connecticut Carry, a gun owner’s group that split from the Connecticut Citizens Defense League in 2011. Burgess says one of the reasons was what he felt was the unwarranted endorsement of Foley in 2010.
“I have not seen anything from Tom Foley,” Burgess said. “He has not contacted us. And questions about what he believes about individual firearm rights go unanswered. I am not going to go out of my way to get my members to vote for him.”
Foley said the issue has not dominated his early appearances before GOP groups, while Boughton and Boucher said it comes up frequently and both are open to revisions.”I wouldn’t say everybody is adamantly opposed to the gun bill, but it will be a factor,” Boughton said. “My position is that we can amend it and not end it.”
Gun owners traditionally find a more welcoming home in the GOP.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll in March, 36 percent of Republican voters in Connecticut live in gun households, twice the percentage of Democrats. While 84 percent of Democrats supported stricter gun laws, Republicans split nearly evenly.
Small voting blocs can carry weight in Republican primaries – and, potentially, in the general election. In 2010, only 120,171 votes were cast in the three-way contest for the GOP nomination that Foley won with 50,792 votes. His margin of victory: 3,803 votes.
Of more than 1.1 million votes cast in the general, Malloy won by just 6,404 votes.
Gun owners filled the Capitol and Legislative Office Building during long public hearings on guns after Sandy Hook. They argued that nothing proposed would have stopped Adam Lanza from killing his mother, then taking her legally purchased AR-15 rifle on a short ride to infamy in Sandy Hook.
The resulting law did not ban the possession of any firearms, but many no longer are available for retail sale, including AR-15 rifles manufactured in Connecticut by Colt’s, O.F. Mossberg and Stag Arms. For the first time, a permit is required to purchase ammunition, a provision that is infuriating hunters, who must obtain a long-gun eligibility certificate or ammunition certificate.
(Malloy and McKinney both say they are open to revising the law to allow the purchase without a permit of shotgun shells and some other types of ammunition commonly used by hunters.)
“What percentage of the primary electorate will be made up of Second Amendment people, it’s impossible to know,” said Tom Scott, a political organizer and former Republican state senator. “I would say, whatever slice of the primary electorate – small, large or in between – they will be the most motivated group.”
But the GOP’s identification with gun rights is blunted by the bipartisan nature of the Sandy Hook law. A significant minority of Republicans joined McKinney and House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, in voting for the law. The Senate vote was 26 to 10, with six of 14 Republicans in support. The House vote was 105 to 44, with backing from 20 of 52 Republicans.
“There were a lot of disenfranchised Republicans when that vote occurred,” said Catherine Marx, a member of the Republican State Central Committee from Hebron, a rural community where shooting sports are popular. “My Democratic state senator voted against it, as did my Republican state representative. Out in eastern Connecticut, sportsmen are very concerned with the law.”
McKinney and Cafero say their involvement produced a less restrictive bill. For example, Malloy wanted to ban the possession of large-capacity magazines like the ones used by Lanza, while the law only forbids retail sales in Connecticut. Gun owners can keep their magazines if they declare them by Jan. 1.
But Scott, echoing leaders of gun-rights groups, said many gun owners feel betrayed by the Republican Party.
“Many of them felt the party should have defended the Constitution. Both Republican leaders were behind closed doors making a deal with the equivalent of the political devil incarnate, Don Williams and Martin Looney,” Scott said, referring to the Democratic Senate leaders. “That didn’t go unnoticed.”
McKinney, who had previously voted to restrict the sale of firearms defined by the legislature as assault weapons, represents a district that includes Newtown, the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre of 26 children and educators. He had friends in the school, including the woman who introduced him to his former wife.
On the anniversary Dec. 14 of the attack, he shared a pew with Malloy during Mass at St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown. Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman sat between them.
For McKinney, the issue has seemed a lose-lose proposition, bringing lots of blame and little praise. He does not get the enthusiastic support of gun-control advocates, who honored Malloy in August for his leadership.
“The governor signed the bill. That’s the bottom line,” said Ron Pinciaro, the executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence. “As far as our supporters are concerned, that seems to be at this point where they feel allegiance.”
Prior to passage of the law, McKinney was briefly heckled at a gun-control rally as the face of a party too conservative on guns. In the months since, McKinney has found himself in frequent conversation about his vote.
“The feedback has been varied,” McKinney said. “There is feedback from my constituents, which is not universally accepting of it, but I think a strong majority were supportive of the bill and the role I played. Obviously, there is a tremendous amount of sentiment and support in Newtown.”
In the weeks before this story was published, McKinney declined to provide a schedule of his campaign appearances. But he concedes to having some sharp conversations with gun owners as he visits Republican town committees.
“The conversation I have with people is usually the same. I say, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ The first thing I do is explain what I believe is my role as a legislator, which is to represent my constituents,” McKinney said. “When people learn I represent Newtown and have represented it for 15 years, longer than anyone else, and that I had friends in the school, for some people it stops the conversation.
“For others, it doesn’t.”