ALBANY–While some lawmakers in Albany and Washington, D.C., were discussing efforts to tighten gun laws following last week’s horrific school shooting in Texas, a group of about 20, made up of Republican lawmakers, farmers and others, stood in front of the steps of the Capitol on Tuesday to discuss a different issue pertaining to schools–milk.
In a press conference Tuesday, Republicans called for the New York State Legislature to pass a Republican-backed bill that would allow public schools to serve whole and 2% milk in school lunch programs. The press conference featured U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, discussing a proposed state law about school milk while federal legislators in the U.S. Senate were reportedly involved in bipartisan negotiations to work toward gun-safety measures to help prevent school shootings.
When asked about gun legislation during the press conference, Stefanik said she is against gun control.
Tuesday’s press conference regarding milk came on the same day that New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie announced that 10 bills have been introduced in the state legislature that would tighten New York’s gun laws, close loopholes and directly address the gaps in laws exposed by shootings in Buffalo, Texas and elsewhere, according to the governor’s office. Among other changes, the bills would strengthen so-called red flag laws by expanding the list of people who can file for Extreme Risk Protection Orders, and require that an individual be at least 21 and obtain a license to purchase a semiautomatic rifle, according to the governor’s office.
Stefanik, 37, said she remains a staunch supporter of Second-Amendment rights.
“I do not support gun control. But there is work that we need to do, and that is increasing mental health funding,” Stefanik said Tuesday. “We need to increase school resource officers and make sure that we’re working with our county sheriffs to protect our schools that are most vulnerable.”
The milk press conference outside the New York State Capitol was the first time Stefanik formally addressed Capital Region media following the May 24 shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 21 people, including 19 children.
“She’s not in her district. She’s in Albany talking about something that is not related to the job of representing the 21st Congressional District,” said Matt Castelli, who is one of two Democrats seeking the House’s North Country seat. “There should be no more compelling issue facing our country right now than addressing the insecurity that our parents and our kids and our teachers are facing with this threat of gun violence in our schools.”
A Politico poll taken after the shooting in Uvalde found 86% of Republicans strongly or somewhat support background checks for all gun sales, while 65% of registered voters favor stricter federal gun laws.
Stefanik emphasized her support of the Fix NICS Act, which strengthened the federal background check system – the National Instant Criminal Background Check System – to prevent convicted felons and domestic abusers from illegally purchasing a firearm.
But Castelli questioned Stefanik’s record, including her decision to vote against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.
“I would just highlight that she has been in Congress for (nearly) eight years and hasn’t been able to solve this problem,” Castelli said. “It’s not surprising to hear Congresswoman Stefanik’s remarks. She’s got a pattern of behavior where every one of her actions is all about service to herself. In this instance, it’s about putting the needs of her special-interest donors and her gun [advocating] husband above the lives of our kids and the safety of our communities.”
Last week, the Times Union reported that Stefanik’s husband, Matthew Manda, works as the manager of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, based in Newtown, Conn.
Manda fired back on Wednesday in a written response to The Daily Gazette, saying he was “proud” of his work at NSSF: “I have never asked my wife to vote a particular way on any legislation, Second Amendment-related or otherwise,” Manda wrote. “Her record is long, public and–judging by election returns–spot on for what her employers, New York voters, want. Suggesting any degree of culpability in these horrific murders is repugnant and should be taken back.”
New York Democrats on Tuesday stressed the importance of gun-safety measures.
“The tragedy in Uvalde marks the second deadliest school shooting in America. Less than two weeks prior, a white supremacist gunman targeted and killed Black shoppers in Buffalo,” Matt Putorti, a Democrat running for the 21st District Congressional seat, said in a statement. “Like a majority of Americans, including those with whom I’ve spoken in the North Country, I support universal background checks, closing gun show loopholes, implementing red flag laws and a federal assault weapons ban.”
U.S. Rep. Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said he supports “any and all legislation that seeks to address the gun violence epidemic in our country,” including last year’s Bipartisan Background Checks Act.
“I also believe we should reimpose the Assault Weapons Ban and limit sales of high-capacity magazines,” Tonko said in a statement. “We need a strong national red flag law that can get guns out of the hands of dangerous people in a time of crisis, and we need to examine and potentially strengthen existing red flag laws like New York’s, which wasn’t able to stop the Buffalo killer.”
Republican Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive who is running for the 19th Congressional District seat, which was vacated with Antonio Delgado’s appointment to lieutenant governor, said he is open to conversations about access to firearms if the dialogue includes a focus on better identifying potential gun owners who display warning signs.
“I don’t embrace increased gun control, but what I do embrace is meeting this moment with a commitment to identify the resources and invest those resources in preventing crime and violence,” Molinaro said following Tuesday’s press conference about milk. “I’m all for having a dialogue about who should have access to firearms, but I am focused on – and will remain focused on – making the investment not in nebulous mental health, but in identifying the characteristics and the traits of individuals – most of them young males – who act out violently.”
Regarding the milk issue, Republicans are challenging the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which amended the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (NSLA) to require that fluid milk served in the Child and Adult Care Food Program be consistent with the most recent version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those guidelines recommend that people older than 2 consume low-fat (1%) or fat-free (skim) fluid milk, according to the USDA.
Republicans argue that limitations on the sale of fattier milks to schools is hurting farmers and doing little to combat childhood obesity, arguing that many kids opt for sugary drinks when tastier milk products, such as whole milk, are not available.
Milk has 13 essential nutrients, including calcium and potassium, according to Toby Amidor, a registered dietician who spoke at Tuesday’s press conference.
“Saturated fat can absolutely fit into a healthy diet,” Amidor said. “You want chocolate milk? A little added sugar with nutrients makes it a little more flavorful for the kids. It’s giving them the nutrition that they need, and that’s the bottom line.”
Molinaro said the limitations on milk in schools are “shortsighted and illogical.”
“The fact that we continue to have policies that ban what is common sense in a school cafeteria, depriving kids of healthy choices and starving farmers that need the business…the fact that we must argue this point continues the absurdity that has gone on in the state capitol.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.