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State grants for shooting ranges?

If Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo thinks that will help him mend fences with gun owners, well, that dog don’t hunt.

Just ask Jim Mills of South Buffalo, who was one of the dozens of people at the Clarence Gun Show on Saturday.

“No. It’s not going to work,” Mills said. “I won’t vote for him.”

Mills says gun ranges are important. But bundles of state money to help improve them will not change his attitude about Cuomo as he runs for re-election later this year.

“I wouldn’t vote for him for dog catcher,” he said.

At the gun show, and virtually anywhere gun owners congregate, opinions about Cuomo follow a well-worn track: He had no business penalizing responsible gun owners by promoting and then signing New York’s SAFE Act.

So some of those same critics figure he’s just trying to repair his own image by having his Department of Environmental Conservation distribute a total $135,000 to 13 nonprofit shooting ranges around the state to improve public access and “promote the responsible use of firearms.”

From Nassau County on Long Island to Erie and Niagara counties in Western New York, those 13 shooting-range operators will use the money to shore up clubhouses, enhance drainage, drill a water well and heat an outdoor pavilion, among other projects.

The Tonawanda Sportsmen’s Club in Niagara County will spend its $15,000 replacing the safety screen for trap and skeet fields and posting safety signs, according to the DEC. An archery range operated by Hawkeye Bowmen, Inc., in Marilla, a “family-oriented archery club,” will spend $11,366 to better insulate its clubhouse.

Each nonprofit shooting range must cover 25 percent of its project’s cost with its own money.

In a sea of about 150 people, mostly men wearing dark colors, Terry Rose, of Derby, stood out at the gun show. He was the fellow in the blue shirt with the Second Amendment printed brightly across its chest. Rose was manning the table for the Shooters Committee on Political Education, a statewide group urging repeal of the SAFE Act, either in the halls of the State Legislature or the courts.

He said that as word spread from Albany that the DEC was seeking grant applications from shooting ranges, SCOPE suspected the governor’s people were out to repair his standing with gun owners.

“I don’t think that any gun range would want to accept that money because, as I say, the damage has been done,” said Rose, who said he was stating his own views, not those of the organization.

But reject the money?

The cash originates with gun owners themselves as they pay a federal tax on firearms and ammunition to fuel the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration program. The tax is applied to archery equipment as well.

Washington then returns the money to fish and wildlife agencies in each state to distribute for wildlife conservation and management programs. But the Fish and Wildlife Service allows dollars to go for hunter education and for “the development and management of shooting ranges.”

“It’s use it or lose it money,” said Dave Notaro, president of the Tonawanda Sportsmen’s Club. “Obviously we are totally against everything that Cuomo has done with the SAFE Act,” he said. “All the SAFE Act does is hurt the average law-abiding gun-shooter. It has no positive impact on the safety of New York residents. That’s all smoke and mirrors.”

But he said that with the federal government trying to return money – “money that they are stealing in taxes anyway” – the fact it would be spent by shooting ranges should not be viewed in a negative light.

While no one seemed to recall New York ever using the money specifically to improve shooting ranges, at least in the recent past, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens explained in a statement that “ranges are key outlets to help develop necessary firearms and archery skills … before heading out into the field.”

In Marilla, the officers of Hawkeye Bowmen harbored some reservations about participating in the grant program, said Phil Fleck, the organization’s president.

“We discussed them at length before we even applied,” he said.

Many of the archery club’s members are gun owners opposed to the SAFE Act, he said. And there was a healthy suspicion that Cuomo’s real aim was to cleanse his image. But the grant, Fleck said, will help open the clubhouse to youth education programs and promote interest in archery.

“I am 72 years old, and I have been in archery a long time,” he said. “And archery is not just about hunting. Archery is its own sport, and all you’ve got to do is look at the Olympics to prove that. That’s kind of what we promote.”

New York lawmakers and the governor adopted the SAFE Act – the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act – in January 2013 in a swift response to the prior month’s mass killing of 20 school children and six educators in Newtown, Conn. With the law, New York required widely supported universal background checks, applied stiffer penalties for people who use illegal guns and imposed the nation’s toughest ban on assault weapons.

More than a year later, criticism has not waned. Gun rights advocates say the law’s loose definition of assault weapons, its limit of seven-round magazines and the rule that mental health professionals report patients they deem dangerous create restrictions that are either difficult to enforce or create new problems. They argue the law ultimately infringes on rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment.

In a federal court challenge heard in Buffalo, U.S. District Judge William Skretny upheld the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines but rejected the seven-round limit, calling it “tenuous, strained and unsupported.” Lawyers on both sides of the matter predicted an appeal.

David Miller, who lives near Lockport, says he will not be voting for Cuomo.

“I don’t care who is running against him,” said Miller, who attended the gun show Saturday. He, too, believes the SAFE Act penalizes gun owners who follow the law while doing nothing in practical terms to make society safer. He said it just continues a constant erosion of personal rights by state and federal governments.

Imagine, he asked, if the government determined that someone could buy no more than one six-pack of beer at a time, because alcohol is at the root of so many social problems and contributes to natural and accidental deaths.

Wouldn’t people protest?

Mills, the gun owner from South Buffalo who had been listening to the conversation, quickly interjected.

“Don’t give Cuomo no ideas.”

email: mspina@buffnews.com