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On The Bus To Albany With New York's Gun Guys

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AP Photo

Decades ago, Rios' parents emigrated from Colombia, and moved to Long Island, N.Y., where his father had a manufacturing business and where Rios grew up. Rios, 39, stayed close to home, and now works as a software engineer for Nikon. He has dark hair, dark eyes, and an easy-going, quiet manner. He has two young kids. He recently got an iPhone 4. He's into video games. He used to fix up cars.

Rios did not grow up around guns. In fact, he'd never fired one before a day in 2000 or 2001 when a friend of his, who was a sniper in the Army, introduced him to shooting. The two of them went out to a firing range on the east end of Long Island with a bolt-action rifle.

"When I got to fire that thing, the thing that really caught me off guard was how it smacked me in the face, because of the power behind it," Rios said. "And then after that, when I was able to actually put shots on a paper target ... it was a great feeling. I really loved it."

Guns became a big part of Rios' life. He feels strongly enough about them that, last Thursday, he got up well before dawn on a cold, damp day, and met up with several dozen other gun owners and gun rights advocates in a parking lot in Melville, N.Y. Together, they boarded a chartered bus for the roughly four-hour drive up to Albany, N.Y., where there was a big rally scheduled to protest the SAFE Act, the package of strict new gun regulations that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed in response to the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Rios is a competitive shooter. In the years following the outing with his sniper friend, Rios started driving to long-range shooting competitions around Long Island. Later, when his kids came along, he switched to pistol competitions, which took place closer to home. He now owns two AR-15 type semiautomatic rifles, one for competition and one for hunting, and two pistols. In January, when he heard about the SAFE Act, Rios got upset.

"For me, when this law passed ... the initial reaction I had was, 'Oh my lord, all my weapons are now illegal — all of the them,'" he said, his voice taking on a hard edge. "And I was furious that, overnight, all my weapons were illegal."

Here's some of what the SAFE Act does: 1) It requires mental health professionals report to officials when they have reason to believe a patient is likely to do something that will harm themselves or others; 2) It provides a stricter definition of "assault weapons" — outlawing, for one, the AR-15 type Bushmaster rifle used in the Newtown, Conn., shooting;  3) It limits magazines to seven rounds, down from the current limit of 10; 4) It requires all gun transfers, except those between immediate family, to go through a federal National Instant Criminal Background Check.

Both advocates and opponents of the SAFE Act have described it as the nation's toughest on firearms. Some gun owners and many proponents of gun ownership, with varying amounts and different kinds of skin in the game, have expressed outrage. Lawsuits have been filed, local resolutions have been passed, and rallies have been organized — like last week's, which took place in Albany's Capitol Park and was organized by the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association. 

Gun groups around the state organized buses to get people to the rally. In Dutchess County, it was the Crum Elbow Sportsmen's Association. In Ulster County, it was the Federated Sportsmen's Clubs of Ulster County. In Madison County, it was the Affiliated Conservation Clubs of Madison County. The Melville bus was set up by two groups, the Long Island Second Amendment Preservation Association and Long Island Firearms. Long Island Firearms -- "dedicated to the preservation of our second amendment rights on a local level" -- counts more than 8,000 members, maintains a website with discussion forums, and organizes monthly firing range meet-ups. All it took for a reporter to get on the bus was an email to Steven Blair, the administrator of the Long Island Firearms website.

"It would be my pleasure to add you on the bus as my guest," Blair responded, a day after the request was made.

Rios aside, most of the riders on the Long Island Firearms bus were white, middle-aged men. Some younger guys filled out the seats, as did a couple of women. And a few of the guys had brought along their kids. On a forum thread dedicated to filling up the bus, people were discouraged from bringing "camo type items" and reminded to "project exactly who we are - normal, everyday Americans going about the business of protecting our Rights and the Rights of the kids not yet born."

The bus was a standard coach. Padded seats, televisions overhead. Someone had brought Dunkin' Donuts coffee for the group. On the way up to Albany, the riders watched "Skyfall," the latest James Bond movie, and the first chunk of "I Am Legend," in which Will Smith keeps zombies at bay with his wits and his gun.

At the rally, the riders dispersed into the crowd, and were lost among a sea of camouflage hunting gear, facial hair, yellow "Don't Tread On Me" flags, and red "Repeal The S.A.F.E. Act" signs. People crowded around a tent selling National Resistance Gear. Large numbers of people joined in sporadic, spontaneous chants of "Cuomo's got to go!" Anger at Cuomo was everywhere. Several signs compared him to Hitler, or portrayed him as Hitler. Then the speakers got started. A reverend, giving the invocation, said he was there "to give Gov. Cuomo his last rites for his political career." The day's headliner, National Rifle Association President David Keene, accused Cuomo of being willing to "sacrifice" the Constitution "on the altar of his own ambition and the ego of Michael Bloomberg." The speakers, most of them Republican lawmakers, validated the anger that was present in the crowd, and the crowd cheered whenever a speaker offered up a sympathetic argument.

"We do not have a constitutional right to deer hunt," state Sen. Michael Nozzolio (R) told the crowd. "We have a constitutional right to bear arms."

Several hours later, the Long Island Firearms crowd clambered back onto the bus, tired and cold, but encouraged after a day spent among like-minded folks. During the ride home, they watched the end of "I Am Legend." Then they watched "Full Metal Jacket." Meanwhile, Rios spoke a bit about how hard it is to talk to the liberals in his life about guns.

"The unfortunate thing is that if someone really has something in their head, and they don't want to hear anything, they don't hear anything other than themselves talking," Rios said. "That's kind of the important thing with most of these conversations. They just hear themselves talking."