By Brian Tumulty
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Gun ownership is low and support for legislation to reduce gun violence is high among New York's 29 congressional lawmakers, according to a survey by the Gannett Washington Bureau and USA TODAY.
At least four of the lawmakers - Reps. Chris Collins, Tom Reed, Richard Hanna and Chris Gibson, all Republicans from upstate - own guns. All four have an "A'' rating from the National Rifle Association.
The delegation's two other Republicans, from New York City and Long Island, and 21 of the delegation's 23 Democrats said they don't own guns. The other two Democrats, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Brooklyn Rep. Nydia Velazquez, would not say either way.
New York's delegation is dominated by liberal Democrats, many of whom praise the state's recently enacted gun control legislation and support similar measures at the federal level in the wake of the Dec. 14 mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown Conn.
"I really want it all,'' Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Monroe County, said in a recent interview. "When someone walks into a schoolroom and kills our babies, we can't tolerate that. It's gone way too far for us to ignore.''
Slaughter has never owned a gun, nor has Rep. Nita Lowey, D-Westchester.
"Of course, progressive members of Congress representing socially progressive areas like me will definitely support these measures, but frankly there aren't enough of us in the Congress,'' Lowey said. "We need support from Republicans and conservative Democrats who have traditionally opposed new gun laws. And frankly, if the Newtown massacre doesn't convince members of Congress to reject the absolutist positions of special interest groups, I'm not sure what will.''
Northeast Republicans played a key role in House passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which included a 10-year ban on assault-style weapons. All seven Republicans who were then members of the New York delegation were among the 46 Republicans who help pass the bill.
Rep. Peter King of Long Island is the only remaining New York Republican from that group.
Unlike 1994, Democrats are in the minority in the House now, and there are fewer moderate House Republicans to help form a bipartisan coalition behind an assault weapons ban.
Only two of New York's six current Republican House members - King and Rep. Michael Grimm of Staten Island - said they would support an assault weapons ban. Reed is firmly opposed.
"When you get to the banning arena, that goes too far,'' he said.
Nonetheless, several New York Democrats are taking leading roles in pushing new gun control measures.
The first bipartisan gun control bill of the new Congress, sponsored by Gillibrand and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, would ban trafficking of guns across state lines.
The measure targets people who legally purchase guns in one state and then sell them privately to someone in another state who would fail a local background check. The lead House sponsor in the last Congress was Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan.
Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of Long Island has joined Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California in sponsoring the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013, which would prohibit the sale, manufacture or importation of 157 types of military-style weapons and ban ammunition clips that hold more than 10 rounds.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, meanwhile, is working with two Senate Republicans and pro-gun Democrats on legislation that would require background checks for all gun sales, including those at gun shows.
"If you had to measure both the effectiveness in reducing gun violence and the chance of it passing, this is the sweet spot,'' Schumer said.
A recent Gallup poll found 91 percent of Americans support criminal background checks for all gun sales.
But the National Rifle Association - which supported universal background checks in the 1990s - now opposes the idea, despite widespread support among its own members.
The NRA has political clout, but how much is open to debate.
The NRA's political arm made campaign contributions in a dozen New York House races last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But the three top recipients of NRA money - Democrat Kathy Hochul of the Buffalo area, Republican Ann Marie Buerkle of the Syracuse area and Republican Randy Altschuler on eastern Long Island - all lost.
Several New York Republican House members indicated they're willing to support increased use of background checks and to provide more complete data on people with mental illness for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Each of the four New York Republicans who own guns has a different background to explain why.
Collins, of the Buffalo area, is deeply involved in Boy Scouts, which runs target shooting and safety programs for guns and archery.
Reed, of Corning, owns a half dozen guns, including his father's hunting rifle, and has taken his son with him to hunt.
Gibson, of Kinderhook in the upper Hudson Valley, is a retired Army colonel who served four combat tours and has taught at West Point.
Hanna, of Oneida County, represents a congressional district that includes the gun manufacturer Remington Arms. He says he rarely uses his guns, which include two revolvers and a gun for target shooting.
Neither of New York's two other House Republicans - King and Grimm - owns a gun.
"My father was a cop and we had guns in the house the entire time I was growing up,'' said King, who learned to shoot while serving in the Army.
Grimm carried a gun when he worked as an FBI agent, but doesn't anymore.
Both said they support universal background checks and a federal ban on assault-style weapons.
"I have already said I would support an assault weapons ban,'' Grimm said. "But what I am asking for in return is to broaden the conversation to talk about trying to get to the root of the problem, which is the growing violence. Why is our youth in America becoming more violent? How do we deal with that? Is it that mental illness is increasing?''
Grimm and several Democrats in the delegation said there's widespread opposition among many Republicans to an assault weapons ban and proposals to limit the size of ammunition clips.
"I've definitely spoken to members who will not support that,'' Grimm said. "I think prudent measures like closing loopholes, background checks, ensuring that the mentally ill don't have weapons - I can't imagine there not being a consensus on that. That should be a bipartisan effort. It makes sense.''
Hanna, who has a concealed weapons permit but doesn't carry a gun, said he "absolutely'' supports universal background checks for gun purchases.
"Even though some people would object, I would say those people are not being realistic,'' he said. "One of the things I think gun owners sometimes lose sight of, is that every time you get a maniac with a gun who does something that's unspeakable, it's a threat to them as well.''
But Hanna said he doesn't know how to prevent another tragedy like the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"Tell me how you keep a maniac away from a gun or doing a misdeed with it, and how you can stop that, and I can talk,'' he said.