An election is coming and voters in the Finger Lakes and nationwide are watching to see who best addresses gun violence.

The day after a teenage gunman massacred 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, U.S. Reps. Chris Collins and Tom Reed commemorated the ninth anniversary of the fatal Flight 3407 crash by honoring the victims’ families and their efforts to bring flight safety reform.

“This dedicated and inspiring group of individuals was instrumental in getting these flight safety reforms signed into law in 2010,” said Collins, R-Clarence. “I stand with the families to do everything we can to prevent future tragedies and keep these requirements in place.”

Likewise, Reed, R-Corning, met with families of the victims, saying “we honor their memory and stand with you for flight safety reforms. Because of their commitment Congress has passed meaningful flight safety legislation.”

The congressmen, whose districts overlap part of the Finger Lakes region and include portions of Ontario County, were quick to stand up for flight safety reform. But their response to the latest mass school shooting steered clear of reform on gun safety, setting up clear divisions between the Republican incumbents and those who are seeking to unseat them in November.

“The tragic events in Parkland are heartbreaking. No community should have to endure what they’ve experienced,” stated Collins. “These actions were carried out by a deranged individual who appeared to provide signs of his intent to carry out this horrific action. While the full facts are still to be determined, I believe we need to have a discussion as a nation about mental health and consider options that prevent individuals like this from having the opportunity to carry out these horrific actions.”

This past week in a conference call, Reed also emphasized mental health.

“We need to call on our mental health providers,” he said. “Law enforcement and mental health providers should have had the tools to prevent this.”

Law enforcement authorities said suspected shooter Nikolas Cruz used an AR-15 semi-automatic-style weapon and “countless magazines” in the Florida shooting. The military-inspired AR-15 rifle has been used by several mass shooters, most notably during the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 children and 6 adults.

Assault-style rifles like the one used at the Florida school have been the weapons of choice in many of the most deadly mass shootings in the last several years, including the Las Vegas massacre on Oct. 1, 2017, and a shooting at a Texas church a month later.

When asked by a reporter about a ban on assault weapons, Reed responded: “That is fundamentally the wrong path to go.”

What now?

With the midterm elections coming up, the latest mass shooting in a long line of massacres now referred to as a national epidemic of gun violence has voters scrutinizing lawmakers and their political rivals. At a meeting last Wednesday of the Ontario County Democratic Committee, a number of Democratic candidates were on hand to update the committee on their campaigns.

A discussion of gun reform was not on the agenda, though several candidates spoke to the issue at the meeting, which included a talk by a leader of the Rochester branch of NY Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The project includes — a movement of Americans working together to end gun violence and build safer communities. The movement is not against the Second Amendment, said speaker Cha Ron Sattler-Leblanc. She said it’s about responsible gun ownership and establishing common-sense gun reforms “to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”

Ian Golden, one of several candidates hoping to clinch the Democratic nomination to run against Reed, echoed a view similar to some of his fellow Democrats. Laws affecting gun owners are a particularly divisive issue in the rural district, he said. At the risk of getting nothing done to curb gun violence, Golden said he wants “legal gun owners at the table.”

“I want them to tell me how they would fix it,” said Golden, an Ithaca businessman.

Charles Whalen, a business consultant and economist from Geneva, is another candidate seeking the Democratic nomination in the 23rd District. On his Facebook page the day after the killing in Florida, Whalen emphasized his stand and addressed specific actions against gun violence consistent with his support for the Second Amendment.

“At the same time, the trend of mass shootings in America is also a constitutional issue — threatening our domestic tranquility, the general welfare, and our ability to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our families,” Whalen states on his campaign site. “We must work together as one community, with the Constitution as our guide, to address this alarming trend and other preventable types of gun violence.”

Nate McMurray, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to defeat Chris Collins in the 27th District, said he believes in the Second Amendment and preserving hunting and trapping, recreation and heritage. But the National Rifle Association “has gone from a safety, awareness and sporting organization to a consumer lobby to sell more guns,” said McMurray, who is Grand Island town supervisor.

“I will not accept money from the gun lobby,” McMurray said.

Throw them out?

A Throw Them Out action plan is part of the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America movement. It urges citizens to commit to vote for gun safety and follow the money the National Rifle Association puts into campaigns.

Reed told reporters this week he stands by his campaign donations.

“I have no problem highlighting that,” he said, adding that the money he receives from the gun lobby shows his commitment to protecting the Second Amendment.

Reed has taken $11,950 since 2010, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Collins has accepted $5,000 since 2012.

The NRA gives members of Congress a grade ranging from A to F that reflects their voting record on gun rights. Reed has an A, Collins an A+.

Both congressmen voted for the NRA-backed concealed-carry bill that passed the House of Representatives in December. The bill allows owners of concealed-carry permits to transport their guns into any other state regardless of that state's laws. The bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

Collins is sponsor and Reed is co-sponsor of the Second Amendment Guarantee Act. The bill referred to as SAGA would restrict the power states have to regulate and tax shotguns or rifles. If enacted, it would supersede New York’s SAFE Act on issues like high-capacity ammunition clips and what the current law calls assault weapons, meaning semi-automatic rifles with features like pistol grips.

SAGA is in committee, having been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, according to Collins' office.

‘The crisis is now upon us’

“We need to take action, inaction is not the appropriate response,” Reed said, responding to reporters’ questions about gun violence. When asked why previous mass shootings before the killings in Florida weren’t enough to warrant action, Reed turned the topic back to mental illness and “what is causing that weapon to go off.”

On that topic, Reed was asked why he supported blocking a President Barack Obama-era rule designed to keep guns out of the hands of certain mentally disabled people. 

Reed said the rule “denied Second Amendment rights to certain individuals.” Reed said he backed blocking the rule because it went “overboard, because it swept up law-abiding citizens.”

On funding for mental health services, which Reed and Collins say is needed to combat gun violence, the congressmen have only to look to Trump’s latest budget request. The president’s budget would slash Medicaid — the major source of federal funding for treating mental health problems. The budget would also cut school safety programs by more than a third.

Reed began the conference call by sounding the alarm about spending and the deficit, warning cuts will have to be made.

“We must get spending under control,” said Reed, who voted with Collins and most every other Republican for the massive $1.5 trillion tax overhaul expected to add to the nation’s $20 trillion debt.

“The crisis is now upon us,” Reed said.