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Hartford - Second Amendment rights advocates in Connecticut are mobilizing to influence this weekend's state Republican convention, as they seek changes to Connecticut's sweeping gun-control law passed last year in the wake of the Newtown school massacre.
In recent months, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, a statewide gun rights organization, has instructed its members on how to become one of the 1,255 delegates to the two-day GOP convention. The group hopes to have a strong delegate presence and ultimately a say in who the party endorses to challenge Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, an outspoken supporter of the gun law.
While some gun rights advocates would like to see the next governor push to repeal the law, others realize that would be a challenge given the strong support for the legislation in the General Assembly. They're banking instead on the law being overturned someday by the courts, but hoping in the meantime to help elect a new governor they believe will be more sympathetic their concerns.
Greenwich businessman and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, the front-runner for the party's endorsement Saturday, is a favorite among many of gun rights advocates, even though he doesn't talk publicly about the issue as much as other lesser-known candidates, such as West Hartford contractor Joe Visconti and Avon attorney Martha Dean, who recently dropped out of the race. Instead, Foley has concentrated on criticizing Malloy's economic record.
"I am comfortable with the conversations I have had with Tom Foley. I believe he is pro-2nd Amendment," said Scott Wilson, president of the CCDL, adding how Visconti also a strong supporter. "I think he is probably doing the right thing keeping things focused on the economy at this point."
Besides Foley and Visconti, three others are seeking the Republican endorsement: Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti. But Wilson doesn't expect they will receive much support from gun rights delegates this weekend. McKinney, whose district includes Newtown, faces opposition for helping to craft the gun control legislation.
Lauretti has little name recognition and Boughton has been criticized for his affiliation with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns group, even though he recently ended his involvement.
Foley has had a nuanced approach to the gun issue. While saying he supports the 2nd Amendment, Foley said he also understands a legislative response was necessary following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Yet he criticizes the final bill for not doing enough to address mental health issues and for including gun control measures that "wouldn't have made a difference in what happened in Newtown."
"For Joe (Visconti), this is his priority issue," Foley said. "For me, I think it's an important issue, but there are a lot of other issues that are important in getting Connecticut turned around."
Foley needs to tread lightly on the gun issue if he hopes to eventually win over the broader electorate in November's general election. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week shows a total of 56 percent of registered voters in Connecticut either strongly or somewhat support the gun law.
"Public opinion is on the side of the new gun control laws," said Quinnipiac Poll Director Douglas Schwartz. "And when you break it down further, and you look at the strong support, the intensity level, it would appear that again the pro-gun control folks have the advantage on intensity. In that sense, it does appear to be an issue that would favor Governor Malloy."
Johnny Carrier, a convention delegate and CCDL member from Farmington, said Foley is probably doing the right thing by focusing more on improving the state's economy, a political vulnerability for Malloy.
"The gun issue will play some role," Wilson said, referring to the gubernatorial election. "But it's not the silver bullet for us or the opposition."
Follow Susan Haigh on Twitter (at)SusanHaighAP