Sunday, September 25, 2022

Republican Chris Jacobs embraced gun control. It ended his political career.

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Rep. Chris Jacobs (R-N.Y.) departs the Capitol after casting his vote on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
Rep. Chris Jacobs (R-N.Y.) departs the Capitol after casting his vote on Capitol Hill. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

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BUFFALO — Standing at a lectern in late May, Rep. Chris Jacobs (R-N.Y.) took a piece of paper from the inner pocket of his dark blue jacket.

He hadn’t discussed what he was about to do with anyone — not his staff and not his wife.

Jacobs began speaking quickly, with conviction. In the wake of mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Tex., he would support a ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, he said. He would also push to raise the minimum age to purchase certain weapons to 21.

Afterward, Jacobs called a senior Republican leader in New York. Jacobs thanked him for his support over the years, then said, only half in jest: “I think I just committed political suicide.”

Jacobs, a first-term member of Congress who represents a district near Buffalo, would become a cautionary tale about the politics of guns in the Republican Party. Officials who had endorsed Jacobs swiftly withdrew their support. Gun rights groups accused him of betrayal. Donald Trump Jr. said Jacobs had “caved to the gun-grabbers.”

A week after his news conference, Jacobs announced he would not seek reelection.

In a recent interview at his district office in Williamsville, N.Y., Jacobs said he did not regret his change of heart, although he felt bad for blindsiding his colleagues.

“Somebody said, ‘Chris, it’s a profile in courage,’ ” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, it’s also a profile in unemployment.’ ”

Jacobs, 55, represents an increasingly rare brand of politician — moderate in ideology and willing to change his mind. He criticized both parties for enforcing conformity in their ranks. “You can’t stray from an orthodoxy,” he said. For Republicans, that issue is guns, he said, and for Democrats, it is abortion.

Jacobs’s political bombshell can be traced, in part, to his deep ties to Buffalo. Although Jacobs was born in New York City, where his father was working a physician, he has spent most of his life in the state’s second-largest city on the shores of Lake Erie.

He belongs to one of Buffalo’s most prominent families, known for its wealth and civic mindedness. His uncle, Jeremy Jacobs Sr., is the billionaire chairman of Delaware North, a sports concession and casino business.

On May 14, Jacobs was with his family — his wife, Martina, his two young daughters and his mother — watching a performance of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” at his nephew’s school about a mile from the Tops supermarket. The office for his real estate company is even closer to the market.

He was walking out of the performance when he learned about the racist attack at the grocery store. “It was a beautiful Saturday,” he said. “And then I got the text — this awful, unimaginable, evil thing happened.”

The next day, Jacobs called Kinzer Pointer, a pastor on Buffalo’s East Side he has known for nearly two decades. The men first met when they were running for seats on the Buffalo school board in 2004. They spent weeks together collecting signatures outdoors in frigid February weather, Pointer said.

The two friends spoke for more than an hour. One of the 10 victims, Katherine Massey, had been a fixture at school board meetings. They talked about the suffering in the community and what could be done. Pointer said he urged Jacobs to support restrictions on guns, with an important caveat. “If you do this,” Pointer told him, “you’re going to be crucified.” At the end of the conversation, Pointer said a prayer.

Five days later, Jacobs read out the names of the Buffalo victims on the House floor, saying “I have thought of little else since this carnage occurred.”

People later asked Pointer whether he was surprised that Jacobs defied his party’s position on guns. “I simply said no,” Pointer said. “That’s the Chris Jacobs I know.”

Buffalo’s East Side was a food desert. The shooting made things worse.

As a young man, Jacobs left Buffalo to study history at Boston College. He spent several years in Washington working for Jack Kemp, then Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President George H.W. Bush.

When Jacobs returned home for law school, he briefly registered as a Democrat, frustrated that Republicans weren’t doing more to reach out to minority voters.

He switched his party registration back to Republican a couple of years later, having concluded that Democratic policies fostered dependency rather than empowerment.

Jacobs served on the Buffalo school board for seven years, founded one of the city’s first charter schools and helped start a charity that awards scholarships to low-income children to attend private schools.

He went on to win election as Erie County Clerk, the first Republican to occupy the post in 40 years and a role that gave him responsibility for issuing gun permits. Then he became a New York state senator.

In 2020, he ran for Congress with President Donald Trump’s endorsement, winning a special election to replace Republican Rep. Chris Collins, who resigned amid a scandal. The New York Republican Committee identified Jacobs as a “rising star.”

In a recent interview with the Buffalo News, Jacobs praised some of Trump’s track record as president but said Trump “lost his mind” after the 2020 election.

Although Jacobs is not a gun owner, he considers himself a strong proponent of the Second Amendment. As Erie County Clerk, he worked to streamline the process of granting gun permits. While in Congress, he co-sponsored bills that would have watered down New York’s strict gun laws. He was repeatedly endorsed by gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association.

After the Buffalo shooting, he began talking to gun-rights advocates he admired. But their rationales for rejecting firearm restrictions increasingly rang hollow, Jacobs said. An unwillingness to consider gun control measures as one way to prevent mass shootings is not “intellectually honest,” he said.

As he wrestled with what to do, Jacobs recalled an interaction he once had with a voter outside a polling station when he was running for New York state senate. A mother walked up to him and said, “Just keep us safe.” It stuck with him, he said.

Ten days after the shooting in Buffalo, a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Texas. That night, Jacobs looked down at his two daughters — 3 years old and six months old — as they slept. They could have been in that classroom, he thought.

What school shootings do to the kids who survive them, from Sandy Hook to Uvalde

When Jacobs abruptly announced his support for gun-control measures three days later, Republican officials were dumbfounded. Ralph Lorigo, the chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party, which backs Republican candidates, summoned Jacobs to his office.

Because of New York’s redistricting process, Jacobs was running in a newly drawn constituency that leaned even further Republican. Most of the people in the district “have a gun in their closet,” Lorigo said. Talking about a ban on assault-style weapons is a “non-starter.”

One senior Republican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said he was “completely flabbergasted” by Jacobs’s announcement. The official said that his candidacy in a conservative district “became unviable.”

Gun rights groups were enraged. The leader of one group called Jacobs a “turncoat backstabber” and pledged to “go after him hard and fast.” Jacobs’s personal cellphone number was made public, and he received irate messages telling him to resign.

Jacobs maintains that he might have fended off a primary challenge but bowed out to avoid turning the race into a divisive referendum on guns. Instead, Jacobs wants to build trust in communities where guns are a way of life — trust that reasonable restrictions on firearms are possible without “eviscerating” the rights of gun owners.

Some of his constituents think he should have run. In early July, Jacobs and his wife met with Vietnam War veterans and their families at American Legion Post 431 in Springville, N.Y., a town of 4,000 people 30 miles south of Buffalo.

Otis Jones, one of the veterans honored at the ceremony, was disappointed when he heard Jacobs was ending his reelection bid. “If you believe in something, you fight ’til the end,” Jones said. “You don’t bow out because the odds are against you.”

Anthony Gioia, a Republican fundraiser and former ambassador to Malta who has known Jacobs and his family for years, expressed dismay at the way Jacobs became radioactive in his party.

“You would have thought he committed capital murder or something, that he dared say there should be some control on weapons,” Gioia said. “I’m a Republican, but I’m not a total NRA advocate.”

Jacobs was true to his word. In June, he was one of only five Republicans to vote for a measure that would prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines and raise the minimum age to purchase a semiautomatic weapon to 21. The bill foundered in the Senate. Jacobs also supported the landmark bipartisan legislation that passed last month making modest changes to background checks.

Together with two Democrats, Jacobs introduced a measure to restrict the sale of body armor. The bill is named after Aaron Salter, the supermarket security guard in Buffalo whose shots were blocked by the gunman’s body armor. Salter was killed in the massacre.

When Jacobs’s term ends in January, he will return to his real estate company. He loved public service, he said, and had looked forward to the prospect of working with a Republican majority in Congress.

“Sometimes, there are decisions where you have to make a stand,” he said. “And I felt this was one.”

Justin Sondel contributed to this report.





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