What a NY Republican abandoning his reelection says about gun reform
Political observers’ reaction to Rep. Chris Jacobs (R-N.Y.) abruptly abandoning his reelection bid over backlash to his support for gun control measures could be summarized in one word: Wow.
As the dust settles on Jacobs’s abrupt bowing out, questions are circulating about what his being pushed out of Congress could mean for gun control efforts and negotiations in the wake of recent massacres and whether hardening in the Republican Party around the issue leaves any room for compromise.
Jacobs, who represents a district that surrounds Buffalo, N.Y., where a self-proclaimed white supremacist gunned down 10 Black people, said that shooting as well as the massacre that killed 19 elementary school children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, made him want to be “transparent” with his position.
“If an assault weapons ban bill came to the floor that would ban something like an AR-15, I would vote for it,” Jacobs said in a May 27 press conference. He also mentioned limiting access to body armor and raising the legal age for buying high-capacity semi-automatic weapons to 21.
Backlash was swift.
Donald Trump Jr. dressed Jacobs down on Twitter, accusing him of chasing “glowing headlines from the mainstream media.” Conservatives started looking for a primary challenger. Gun rights activists circulated petitions asking Jacobs to reverse his position. Every GOP elected official that had endorsed him withdrew their support, Jacobs said, and someone posted his cellphone number online.
A week later, Jacobs announced that he would not seek reelection to New York’s newly drawn 23rd Congressional District, which covers some of the same territory as his current 27th District but includes much new terrain. He did not want to divide the GOP, he said, and make the election entirely about the gun issue.
Now advocates on both sides are seeking to parse what his decision means for the gun control debate and attempts at reforms.
The best chance at any successful legislation in Congress rests in the Senate, where Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) hopes to lead a bipartisan group of senators to compromise on small steps to address gun violence. Areas of potential agreement concern reforms to background checks and promoting red flag laws to keep those deemed a danger to themselves or others from possessing firearms.
But Jacobs, who assumed office in mid-2020 after winning a special election, indicated the fallout around his own position could be a sign that any Republican who steps out of line could face the same political fate. He expected pushback, he said, but not to that extent.
“We have a problem in our country, in terms of both our major parties. If you stray from a party position, you are annihilated,” Jacobs said. “For the Republicans, it became pretty apparent to me over the last week that that issue is gun control — any gun control.”
Advocates for gun control and safety measures, though, hope that Jacobs is a unique case and not indicative of what happens to any Republican who entertains gun reform.
“It seems like Congressman Jacobs sort of mishandled this politically in various ways. But obviously, his heart was in the right place,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun reform group Giffords.
GOP officials appeared to be caught off-guard by Jacobs’s announcement. New York State Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy told local news station WIVB 4 that Jacobs did not talk about his position with political allies before making the announcement. Conservative Party of New York State Chairman Gerard Kassar said he was “perplexed” at Jacobs’s announcement.
“There’s ample evidence to show that, you know, to show that Republicans can and have successfully supported safer gun laws in Congress and elsewhere,” Ambler said.
An assault weapons ban is not on the table in the bipartisan Senate negotiations, other gun control activists note. They point to strong bipartisan support among Americans for requiring background checks on all gun sales.
“The vast majority of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, believe that the time is now for action to prevent further gun violence,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action. “It’s deeply disappointing that the extremists in his party have pushed Congressman Jacobs out, but this doesn’t change the fact that we have a real opportunity to make real changes that can save lives. I’m encouraged by reports of progress on red flags, background checks, secure storage and more mental health support — because inaction cannot be an option.”
Gun rights groups, though, see Jacobs’s political demise as predictable and justified.
“Federal bans on semi-automatic rifles are wildly unpopular with law-abiding gun owners — a group of Americans who regularly vote and are deeply involved in the political process. When Rep. Jacobs came out in support of an ‘assault weapons’ ban, he signed onto the end of his political career in Congress,” said Chris Stone, director of communications with the National Association for Gun Rights, a group that boasts a no-compromise stance.
The group circulated a petition to its members asking Jacobs to reverse his stance.
Gun rights groups have also pledged to run aggressive campaigns against some of the compromise positions being considered in Congress. Red flag laws like those on the table in Senate negotiations, they argue, violate due process rights.
“We’ll expose any and all Republicans (and Democrats) who vote in favor of compromise gun control deals, including Red Flag and universal background checks which funnel gun owners into the NICS [background check] database,” Stone said.
GOP leadership on the House side has also expressed opposition to “red flag” laws.
“Under the guise of [a] red flag, they take away due process where they literally can come into your house and take away your gun without you even knowing that there was some kind of proceeding where somebody said, ‘Oh, I think that guy might be a threat,’” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said on “Fox News Sunday.” “So, now somebody can go and take away your constitutional right. I don’t think people would agree with that. That’s not how we deal with rights in America.”