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California Congressman Michael Thompson joined 5th District Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty Thursday at a forum on gun control at Newtown High School. (Matt DeRienzo photo)

A California lawmaker who chaired a congressional task force on gun violence after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting nearly two years ago was in Newtown on Thursday, meeting with high school students and supporting 5th District Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty’s re-election campaign.

Michael Thompson, a fellow Democrat from the Napa Valley, said that Esty has been crucial to the work of the task force and the issue of gun law reform since being sworn in to office two weeks after 26 children and educators were murdered at Sandy Hook.

“I didn’t know Elizabeth. I didn’t know who she was. But I knew I wanted her on the task force,” Thompson said. “It was important for a whole host of reasons to have the representative for that area there … She’s jumped in with both feet, she’s taken this very, very seriously. She’s committed to it. She’s worked tirelessly.”

Thompson’s and Esty’s focus on Thursday was universal background checks for all commercial gun sales. They’re co-sponsors of a bill that would close loopholes for online sales and gun shows that exist in the current 20-year-old federal background check law.

It became an issue in Esty’s re-election bid recently when her opponent, Litchfield real estate developer Mark Greenberg, surprised many by saying in their first debate that he agreed with Esty on the issue. The next day, the National Rifle Association dropped its rating of Greenberg’s candidacy from an “A” to an “F.”

Greenberg said that the Sandy Hook shootings led him to change his position on the issue. His “A” rating was based on an NRA questionnaire that he’d filled out during an unsuccessful 2012 congressional bid prior to the shooting.

But on Thursday, Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, which is strongly opposed to universal background checks, said that it is sticking by its endorsement of Greenberg.

“Mark is a far better candidate than Elizabeth Esty,” he said. “I know that he supports the 2nd Amendment. I think a lot of people don’t understand the background check dilemma.”

Wilson said that Greenberg is a strong supporter of gun rights, and after talking to him, believes he was not fully aware of the details of the bill. “Once the individuals in Washington explain things to him better, he’ll probably oppose it,” he said.

Thompson said that Greenberg’s back and forth on the issue over the past few weeks stands in contrast to Esty’s position.

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California Congressman Michael Thompson joined 5th District Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty Thursday at a forum on gun control at Newtown High School. (Matt DeRienzo photo)

“There’s no wavering. There’s no question about her commitment. She’s 100 percent dialed in to gun violence prevention. It’s a distinction in this race. Her opponent is not … He’s flip-flopped on this issue,” Thompson said.

Thursday’s forum was hosted by the teen division of the Newtown Action Alliance, an organization formed in the days following the Sandy Hook shooting that has advocated for stronger gun control laws.

Addressing students wearing face paint for Spirit Week in a lecture hall at Newtown High School, Thompson explained that he is a “gun owner and a hunter.” He dismissed questions some posed about enacting a federal ban on the type of weapon, an AR-15, used in the Sandy Hook shooting.

“It will never happen,” he said. “. . . There’s no way we can do away with them.”

He called talk of “banning” weapons that are already common “tilting at windmills,” and said he supported the right of a “law-abiding citizen” to “have as many guns as they want.”

The focus, he said, should be on specific measures that can have a measurable impact on public safety, including universal background checks, a federal ban on “straw purchases” of guns, and making the interstate trafficking of illegal guns a felony.

“Ninety-three percent of the American people think there should be universal background checks. That’s more Americans than believe in capitalism, vacations, and Italian food,” Thompson said.

Thompson said that the universal background check bill has 189 co-sponsors in the House, and he is confident it would have the support of between the necessary 218 and 243 “yes” votes if House Speaker John Boehner would allow it to be brought to the floor.

Esty said the bill has wide, albeit somewhat quiet, support in Congress in part because it was carefully crafted to make sure that it applies only to commercial sales, not transactions between family members or neighbors.

It includes measures protecting gun owners who might be traveling on a hunting trip from one state to another where local laws can be very different, she said, and it explicitly prohibits any law enforcement agency or official from creating a “registry” of gun owners.

“There are a lot of myths about what this would do. The biggest one is that it would create a registry and there would be a massive, secret list to help them come take your guns,” she said. The bill actually makes the creation of such a registry a felony, but, she said, “That was not enough for people who want to believe that this is a sinister plot.”

Wilson sees universal background checks leading to further inconvenience and stigmatization of “law-abiding” gun owners.

“It’s just leading us down a false path,” he said. “We want to keep firearms ownership a mainstream ideal for people to aspire to and not behind some locked cabinet with the cigarettes and the alcohol on the shelf. We want people to know this is part of our country and our heritage.”

He said that Esty is part of a Connecticut delegation in Washington that “is pretty much marching to an anti-gun beat.”

“I would be happy if she were to lose her seat and Mark could take her place,” Wilson said. “On a national level, Connecticut is all perceived as this entirely anti-gun state … I think it would be nice to send some kind of message. We’re Connecticut and not everyone has turned anti-gun based on a tragedy from the actions of a deranged individual.”

Bill Evans, Greenberg’s campaign manager, criticized Esty for holding the forum with Thompson less than two weeks before the election.

“It says something about Elizabeth Esty’s character that she continues to use people and issues for political advantage and it shows just how much a creature of Washington she has become in less than two years,” he said. “Using the town that was home to such an unthinkable tragedy for a campaign stop is insensitive at best and I think the voters will see right through the political machinations of the Esty campaign. The people of Newtown and Sandy Hook deserve better than being exploited by Elizabeth Esty.”

Laura Maloney, Esty’s campaign spokeswoman, said that some of the teens at Thursday’s forum had previously met Thompson on trips to the Capitol organized by Newtown Action Alliance.

“These students have been leading voices in the country on this issue, many of them coming down to Washington, D.C., to advocate for common-sense gun reforms. It was a great opportunity for Congressman Thompson and Congresswoman Esty to hear directly from these student activists,” she said.

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Matt DeRienzo

Matt DeRienzo is the editor of the Center for Public Integrity.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.