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The Gun Industry Will Challenge Gov. Malloy in the 2014 Election

Connecticut gun owners are angry as hell at Gov. Dannel Malloy. Connecticut's gun industry is pissed at him too. So are pro-gun lobbies like the NRA and the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Those gun groups appear certain to pump big bucks into next year's race for governor in an effort to shoot down Malloy for his high-profile trashing of their industry and his push for some of the toughest gun-control laws in the nation.

None of which would matter much except that Malloy doesn't seem to be getting a lot of love from most Connecticut voters. Assuming he runs (and a host of state pols would need shock treatment if he doesn't), Malloy is looking at the sort of skin-of-your-teeth campaign where gobs of outside cash could swing the election.

"In a close race, the big money could make a difference," says Arthur Paulson, chairman of the political science department at Southern Connecticut State University.

Roy Occhiogrosso helped orchestrate Malloy's win in 2010. He believes next year's campaign will be "a very competitive race."

It's not really much of a surprise that Malloy's popularity is continuing to hover around 47 percent approval in the most recent Quinnipiac University Poll. (Those numbers have been so steady that the survey's director, Doug Schwartz, refers to our governor as "mid-40s Malloy.")

A sluggish economy, lousy job-growth numbers, massive state budget problems and ugly tax increases have all contributed to his politically dicey status.

"He's had to make some very tough decisions to pull Connecticut out of the ditch it was in," insists Occhiogrosso. Which is a nice line, but a lot of voters seem to think we're still in that economic gutter.

Malloy wasn't responsible for the economic crap and budget screwups that got Connecticut into this mess. But governors tend to get the blame when life is lousy.

Under the circumstances, you'd think Malloy's tough stance on guns would be a big help in a pro-gun-control state like Connecticut. After all, 57 percent of the voters the Q Poll contacted in June backed the new gun-control law that the governor helped pass. The legislation bans the sale of military style, pseudo-assault weapons and high-capacity magazines like the ones used to kill 26 kids and adults in Newtown.

The governor's difficulty is that only 47 percent like the way Malloy himself is handling gun-control policy.

The difference could have something to do with the fact that more than a quarter of those polled thought Connecticut's gun controls didn't go far enough.

It could also be tied to some of Malloy's nasty comments about the firearms industry, which has deep historical roots in Connecticut (think Sam Colt and that starry blue onion dome beside I-91 in Hartford) and employs thousands of people here.

"What this is about is the ability of the gun industry to sell as many guns to as many people as possible — even if they are mentally ill, even if they have a criminal background," Malloy said on CNN's "State of the Union" broadcast just after signing Connecticut's new gun restrictions into law. "They don't care. They want to sell guns."

State gun makers warned they might leave the state if the new controls became law. Governors of gun-friendly southern states, including Rick Perry of Texas, started singing siren songs of welcome and offered sexy incentives to seduce Connecticut gun companies into moving.

In June, PTR Industries (the acronym stands for "Precision Target Rifles") announced it was skipping out of Bristol and taking its 24 workers to South Carolina.

Last week, execs at Fairfield-based Sturm, Ruger & Co. proclaimed they would be opening a new factory in North Carolina to go along with its gun facilities in New Hampshire and Arizona. Gun-owner worries about more gun control have pushed firearm sales into orbit. Sturm, Ruger's shares on Wall Street were soaring last week on the wings of reports of a 50-percent jump in sales in the past year.

Connecticut also happens to be in a surge for new pistol permits. That includes a big jump in permit applications in Newtown, home of the Sandy Hook school massacre.

Gun-owner and gun-industry anger over the new controls (and probably at Malloy) is also boosting political contributions to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the Newtown-headquartered trade association of the firearms industry.

Hearst Newspapers reported earlier this month that cash was flooding into the NSSF's political action committee: $181,000 in the first six months of this year.

Bob Crook is head of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen. He says big gun lobbies like the NSSF and the National Rifle Association haven't spent a lot of political money on Connecticut races in the past, primarily because of this state's strict limits on the amount of contributions. Now, the rules of the game have been drastically changed. The U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling allows lobby groups and others to essentially spend unlimited money on political messages.

"I think it's very clear we are displeased by the comments of the governor toward our industry, for which he refused to apologize," Lawrence Keane, one of the top honchos at the NSSF, told a Hearst reporter. "We are very likely to educate gun owners and hunters and sportsmen in Connecticut about the governor's intemperate remarks regarding our industry."

"Educate" as in anti-Malloy ads and campaign attacks.

Occhiogrosso thinks a big gun-industry assault on Malloy next year could backfire.

"To the extent that it highlights the fact that this governor helped push through some of the toughest gun-control legislation in the country... I think it may actually help him."

Paulson says a gun-industry campaign against Malloy in our pro-gun-control state could be "something of a wash."

Malloy's underlying problem is that, aside from the gun control and economic stuff, a lot of Connecticut voters don't seem to feel he's a very likable guy.

That last Q Poll asked if people believed Malloy "cares about the needs and problems of people like you." The answer came back 47 percent yes, and 47 percent no.

"That's a very important one," Schwartz says. "What it measures is empathy; does he really get your problems?"

Crook thinks gun owners are dead certain Malloy doesn't understand their issues. "There's opposition to him, that's for damned sure," Crook notes. "I don't think any gun owners are going to vote for him."

If Malloy's gun policies do come under attack — and it's a virtual certainty — it's an open question how the non-gun-owning public will respond.

As Paulson notes, "There's not a bedrock of affection protecting him from bad news."

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