Crossing the aisle: Local gun control advocates meet with Rep. Gibson

An old rule of etiquette: Don't discuss religion or politics at the dinner table. In upstate New York, one might banish two more incendiary topics from polite dining conversation: Fracking and gun control. 

Since the hasty and controversial passage of New York State's SAFE Act, the question of how the state ought to regulate gun ownership has become an especially divisive issue in the Catskills region, and across upstate New York. Most of upstate New York's counties, and many of its towns, have passed non-binding resolutions condemning New York State's new law.

One such town was Shandaken, whose town board's recent passage of an anti-gun-control resolution has sparked a backlash and petition drive from the town's more pro-regulation residents

Last week, several locals who have been active in supporting gun control and critical of the Shandaken town board's actions met with Congressman Chris Gibson, a staunch gun-rights advocate and vocal critic of the SAFE Act. 

In a recent blog post, Tony Fletcher -- a Mount Tremper resident, local author, and member of the Onteora Board of Education -- recounts the meeting with Gibson, which was also attended by Marybeth Mills, local restaurant owner, and Nick Alba, chairman of the Shandaken Democratic Committee. 

Fletcher writes that despite their differences, the conversation was respectful:

Gibson was, as we anticipated, unfailingly polite and respectful. He is a decorated war hero with a Purple Heart among other medals, having served four tours of duty in Iraq amongst seven deployments that saw him rank to the rise of Colonel; he also has an MPA and PHD in Government from Cornell, and has taught American politics at West Point. In short, although he is sits very far on the right when it comes to gun issues, he is a smart and proven man, and his military experience has clearly enhanced and furthered his leadership skills. If part of the frustration over the issue of gun ownership and legislation in the USA today is that the two extremes are mostly shouting at rather than listening to each other, I would like to stress that this was a more positive scenario. Our two sides talked to each other, and listened to each other, for a full hour. (We had been promised only 15-20 minutes.)

Gibson may soon take a vote on federal gun control legislation, which has been the subject of months of debate and political jockeying in the nation's capital. On Wednesday morning, two pro-gun U.S. Senators announced that they had struck a deal with the White House and gun control advocates in the Senate on background check legislation.

During the group's conversation, Fletcher writes, Gibson countered the gun control advocates on many points, but in the end conceded that there may be some common ground on the issue of background checks:

At the end of the meeting, we got something short of a promise. “Background checks is something we can look at.” And at the end of this current Congress, background checks may indeed be all that the House of Representatives is asked to look at, in terms of a vote.

In his blog post, Fletcher also asks -- somewhat plaintively -- how a region that was represented by progressive Democrat Maurice Hinchey for decades could go to a Republican like Gibson "overnight":

Some might say they were gerry-mandered. Because, indeed, how else do you go from an old District that was resolutely Democratic to a brand new District that suddenly finds you in Republican territory? That’s the way politics works – as anyone who lived through Thatcherite Britain in the 1980s can also testify.

The Catskills region was indeed redistricted dramatically in 2012, along with the rest of New York State. But a side-by-side glance at the two district maps -- Hinchey's 22nd versus Gibson's 19th -- makes it clear that Hinchey's old district was much more of an exotically-shaped beast than Gibson's is, encircling much of the Catskills and flinging out a long, skinny westward arm to embrace left-leaning Ithaca. New York State's 2012 redistricting was done by a panel of federal judges, after the usual process -- a series of redistricting deals between the state Senate and Assembly -- fell through.

The result of putting nonpartisan judges in charge of redistricting? Gibson's 19th District is fairly balanced between Democrats and Republicans. The district has a slight Republican edge in voter registrations, but went to Obama in the 2012 elections.

Asked for a comment on the meeting with the Shandaken gun control advocates, Gibson's spokeswoman Stephanie Valle told the Watershed Post that the Congressman encourages constituents to meet with him, even if they disagree with his policy:

"Congressman Gibson always appreciates hearing from constituents, and having the opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue on issues important to them and the 19th District. Even on issues where there are differing perspectives, a respectful discussion can find areas of common ground or understanding. His perspective has always been to work to bring people together, and meetings like these are an important part of that effort. I would encourage any constituent who is interested in sharing their views to contact our office to speak with the Congressman or our staff," Valle wrote.