ALBANY With the state Capitol as a backdrop, a few thousand protesters railed against New York's gun-control laws on Tuesday at a rally that drew an appearance from celebrity real-estate magnate Donald Trump.
The protesters filled the south end of Albany's Empire State Plaza, as speaker after speaker berated Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature for passing the SAFE Act last year, which has sparked numerous protests at the Capitol and around the state.
The event also drew plenty of political intrigue. Not only did it feature remarks from Trump, who had flirted with a run for governor until deciding against it last month, but also from Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rob Astorino and 2010 GOP nominee Carl Paladino, who is threatening a run on a third-party line.
"He took away your rights," Astorino, the Westchester County executive, said of Cuomo. "You take away his job."
As with previous pro-gun rallies at the Capitol, Cuomo was the most-frequent target of the protesters' ire. One man, dressed in Revolutionary War-style garb, hoisted a puppet of Cuomo hanging from a stick, hitting it with toy guns that were later confiscated by State Police.
Addressing the crowd, Trump said New York is in "big trouble," with corrupt politicians, high taxes and businesses and residents leaving the state. Some in the crowd were holding "Trump for Governor" signs.
"On top of everything, they give you the SAFE Act," Trump said. "I'm a big second amendment person; I'm a strong believer in it. You have the constitutional right to keep and bare arms and you have that right and they are taking it away, slowly, but surely, they're taking it away. And they're not taking it away from the bad guys."
Trump, who said he holds a pistol permit, said the SAFE Act was one of the worst and fastest written bills he's ever seen signed into law. After he delivered his remarks, he quickly spoke to the media, posed for a few photographs and left in a black SUV.
Minutes later, a Sikorsky helicopter with "TRUMP" painted on the side buzzed over the crowd.
The SAFE Act was passed by lawmakers and signed by Cuomo in January 2013. It made a number of changes to the state's gun-control laws, including a broader ban on assault weapons and a limit on the number of rounds that can be loaded in a magazine. The seven-round limit was thrown out by a federal court in western New York and is currently being appealed by the state.
Cuomo on Tuesday told reporters that gun-control issues have "driven strong feelings on both sides for decades."
"It's a topic that drives strong emotions, like many topics," Cuomo said. "A woman's right to choose -- strong emotion. The DREAM Act, by the way -- strong emotion. So I understand it, but it's the nature of the discussion."
Inside the Capitol, supporters of gun-control measures held a news conference of their own Tuesday, supporting the SAFE Act and pushing for stronger laws.
New Yorkers Against Gun Violence and State Legislators Against Illegal Guns are pushing for a series of new gun laws, including legislation that would broaden requirements for locking firearms in a safe or gun cabinet when not in use, require technology that prints a unique code on bullets when fired and implement a one-gun-a-month purchasing limit.
"We must move forward," Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, D-Suffern, Rockland County, said at the news conference. "It was a proud moment for us to be here and vote for the SAFE Act because we took a step in that direction of protecting our families and protecting communities, but we need to move forward and do more."
Assemblyman David Buchwald, D-White Plains, said Westchester County already has a child access prevention law and that he supports a statewide law.
"It's been on the books for many years, it's helped in numerous circumstances and there's no reason why that model can't be extended to the state of New York," Buchwald said. "It's time to make progress on this issue."
Meanwhile, buses carrying the anti-SAFE Act protesters left from more than a dozen points across the state, including both the Rochester and Kingston areas.
James Ayers, a retired math teacher from Kerhonkson, Ulster County, said he was disappointed the rally didn't draw the same attendance as one on the Capitol's west lawn in February 2013.
"I wanted to show support for the folks who are trying to get this act overturned," said Ayers, 70. "I'm trying to interface, network, meet new people and show that it's not just an Ulster County issue, it's a statewide issue."
Bob Kendall, a retired railroad worker from Batavia, Genesee County, said he believed the rally's message got across. He stood watching the speakers while holding a "Trump for Governor" sign.
"To tell you the truth, I really don't think they're listening," said Kendall, 64, as he looked toward the Capitol. "It's going to take a good voter turnout to get the point across that we respect the Constitution, and they don't."
A Siena College poll last month found 63 percent of voters support the SAFE Act, with 79 percent of New York City voters saying they favor it. Support was at 63 percent in the city's suburbs, while 52 percent of upstate voters said they oppose it.