By Jon Campbell
ALBANY --- Written in black marker on white tagboard and attached to a pole, Joe Bucolo's message was displayed high above the crowd: "No more NYC laws 4 upstate."
The 64-year-old retired caseworker's sign summarized a common theme among thousands of pro-gun protesters Thursday at a Capitol rally, where downstate residents were few and contempt for New York City was high.
"We're just two separate, distinct cultures, really," said Bucolo, of Lockport, Niagara County. "I think there is just a growing feeling that people down in the city -- Manhattan and those quarters, people like (Assembly Speaker Sheldon) Silver -- have nothing but disdain for us."
Contention between the more conservative upstate and and more liberal downstate New York, driven by their distinct difference in political ideology and vastly different economies, is nothing new.
But the state's new, stricter gun-control laws -- the subject of Thursday's rally -- seem to have reignited the decades-old divide.
"There's no question in my mind at all," said Assemblyman Stephen Hawley, R-Batavia, Genesee County. "It's another indicator that we really are two states."
Since the law was passed in January, 34 counties have passed resolutions opposing it, all of which are north of New York City.
A Siena College poll last month found New York voters 2-to-1 support the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, which included a broader ban on assault weapons and lower limits on the capacity of magazines. The bill was pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who had sought the changes after high-profile shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Webster, Monroe County.
The difference between upstate and downstate, however, is stark, the poll found. Eighty-two percent of New York City voters said they favored the new laws, with 15 percent opposed. The city's suburbs showed a 61-32 percent split.
Upstate voters, however, showed a near-even divide, with 50 percent supportive of the law and 46 percent against.
At the rally at the Capitol on Thursday, the loudest chorus of boos came at the mention of Michael Bloomberg, the New York City mayor who has led nationwide efforts to pass gun-control laws.
Sen. David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown, Rockland County, said the gun-control debate has been "raging for decades." It's not a matter of upstate versus downstate, he said.
"I think people are very passionate about this issue and they have a right to be," Carlucci said. "I think what we're trying to do in New York is make sure we make it as safe as possible without impeding on people's rights."
Others disagree, pointing to the geographical breakdown of the vote in the Legislature.
In the Senate, the SAFE Act passed 43-18; All 18 "no" votes came from senators who represent districts north of New York City.
"It does appear at this point to be an upstate-downstate issue, and whether that's fortunate or unfortunate, I really don't want to make that prediction," said Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton. "But I do know that Second Amendment rights are very important to the majority of my constituents. My obligation is to represent them, and that's why I voted no."
About a dozen upstate Republican lawmakers spoke at the Thursday rally, garnering significant applause as one-by-one they knocked the gun-control laws for impeding on their rights.
Barbara Hohlt, chair of New Yorkers Against Violence's legislative committee, said characterizing the gun-control debate as a regional divide is missing the point.
According to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, 85 percent of guns recovered by police in New York City came from out of state in 2009, the most recent year available. Across the five largest cities north of New York City, the rate was just 40 percent.
"A lot of the guns used in crime upstate actually come from upstate," Hohlt said. "Having a background check on every gun sale would help reduce the use of guns in crime upstate." The SAFE Act requires background checks for private, person-to-person sales for the first time.
The long-simmering tension between the northern and southern portions of the state have, at times, even led some to talk of secession, as unrealistic as it may seem. Downstate is viewed as an economic engine for the rest of the state, with 14 percent of New York's tax revenues last year coming from Wall Street companies, alone.
Hawley, the Batavia assemblyman, sponsors a bill that would allow for a statewide referendum asking New York voters whether they would like to see the state split in two. The bill -- a form of which dates back to 1992, when it was sponsored by Hawley's father -- aims to start a conversation, he said.
"There are so many issues, whether it's gas prices, whether it's Medicaid, whether it's Thruway tolls, whether it's mandate relief," Hawley said. "I just think that there's got to be a better way to run this state, and this would get the people talking about it."