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

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Rep. Chris Jacobs (RN.Y.) leaves the Capitol after casting his vote on Capitol Hill.  (Photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
Rep. Chris Jacobs (RN.Y.) leaves 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 (RN.Y.) pulled a piece of paper from the inside pocket of his dark blue jacket.

He hadn’t discussed what he was about to do with anyone – neither with his staff nor with his wife.

Jacobs started speaking quickly, with conviction. Following the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, he would support a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, he said. He would also push to raise the minimum age to buy certain guns to 21.

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

Jacobs, a first-time congressman who represents a district near Buffalo, would become a cautionary tale about gun politics in the Republican Party. Officials who had endorsed Jacobs quickly withdrew their support. Gun advocacy groups accused him of treason. Donald Trump Jr. said Jacobs had “given in to gun thieves.”

A week after his press conference, Jacobs announced he would not run again.

In a recent interview at his district office in Williamsville, NY, Jacobs said he didn’t regret his change of heart, even though he felt bad for catching his colleagues off guard.

“Someone said, ‘Chris, that’s a profile of courage,'” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s also an unemployment profile.’ ”

Jacobs, 55, represents an increasingly rare brand of politicians – moderate in ideology and ready to change your mind. He criticized both parties for imposing conformity within their ranks. “You can’t deviate from an orthodoxy,” he said. For Republicans, that problem is guns, he said, and for Democrats, it’s abortion.

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

He is from one of Buffalo’s most prominent families, known for their wealth and civic-mindedness. Her uncle, Jeremy Jacobs Sr., is the billionaire chairman of Delaware North, a sports franchise 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 supermarket. Tops. The office of his real estate company is even closer to the market.

He was leaving the performance when he learned of the racist attack at the grocery store. “It was a beautiful Saturday,” he said. “And then I got the text – this horrible, unimaginable, diabolical thing happened.”

The next day, Jacobs called Kinzer Pointer, a pastor from the East Side of Buffalo whom he has known for nearly two decades. The men first met while running for seats on the Buffalo school board in 2004. They spent weeks together collecting signatures outdoors in freezing February weather, Pointer said. .

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

Five days later, Jacobs read the names of the Buffalo victims on the floor of the house, saying, “I haven’t thought of anything else since this carnage happened.”

People then asked Pointer if he was surprised that Jacobs challenged his party’s stance on guns. “I just said no,” Pointer said. “He’s the Chris Jacobs I know.”

The East Side of Buffalo was a food desert. The shooting made matters 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 HW Bush.

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

He changed his party registration to Republican a few years later, having concluded that democratic politics favored 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 hold the office in 40 years and a role that gave him responsibility for issuing gun licenses. Then he became a senator from New York State.

In 2020, he ran for Congress with the endorsement of President Donald Trump, winning a special election to replace Republican Representative 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 supporter of the Second Amendment. As Erie County Clerk, he worked to streamline the gun licensing process. While in Congress, he co-sponsored bills that would have watered down New York’s strict gun laws. He has been repeatedly endorsed by gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association.

After the Buffalo shooting, he started talking to gun rights advocates he looked up to. But their justifications for rejecting gun restrictions were ringing increasingly hollow, Jacobs said. A reluctance to consider gun control measures as a means to prevent mass shootings is not “intellectually honest”, he said.

As he pondered what to do, Jacobs recalled an interaction he once had with a voter outside a polling place as he ran for the state Senate. from New York. A mother approached him and said, “Just keep us safe.” It stuck with him, he said.

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

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

When Jacobs abruptly announced his support for gun control measures three days later, Republican officials were stunned. Ralph Lorigo, the chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party, which supports Republican candidates, called Jacobs into his office.

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

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

Gun advocacy groups were furious. The leader of one group called Jacobs a “traitor in the back” and pledged to “hit him down hard and fast.” Jacobs’ personal cell phone number was made public and he received angry messages telling him to quit.

Jacobs argues he might have fended off a primary challenge, but pulled out to avoid turning the race into a divisive gun referendum. Instead, Jacobs wants to build trust in communities where guns are a way of life – trust that reasonable restrictions on guns 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, NY, 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 learned that Jacobs was ending his re-election bid. “If you believe in something, you fight until the end,” Jones said. “You don’t bow because the odds are stacked against you.”

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

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

Jacobs kept his word. In June, he was one of only five Republicans to vote for a measure banning the sale of high-capacity magazines and raising the minimum age to buy a semi-automatic weapon to 21. The bill foundered in the Senate. Jacobs also backed landmark bipartisan legislation that passed last month, making modest changes to background checks.

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

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

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

Justin Sondel contributed to this report.

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