After that, Jacobs called a senior Republican leader in New York. Jacobs thanked him for his support over the years, but then said, only half-jokingly, “I think I just committed political suicide.”
Jacobs, a first-term congressman representing a district near Buffalo, would become a cautionary tale about gun politics in the Republican Party. Officials who had supported Jacobs quickly withdrew their support. Gun rights groups accused him of treason. Donald Trump Jr. said Jacobs buckled “in front of the gun robbers”.
A week after his press conference, Jacobs announced that he would not seek re-election.
In a recent interview at his Williamsville, NY area office, Jacobs said he has no regrets about his change of heart, although he feels bad for blinding his colleagues.
“Someone said, ‘Chris, that’s a courage profile,'” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, it’s also a profile in unemployment.’ ”
Jacobs, 55, represents an increasingly rare breed of politician – moderate in ideology and willing to change his mind. He criticized both parties for enforcing conformity within their ranks. “You cannot deviate from an orthodoxy,” he said. For Republicans, it’s guns, he said, and for Democrats, it’s abortion.
Jacobs’ political bombshell can be attributed in part to his deep Buffalo ties. Although Jacobs was born in New York City, where his father worked as a doctor, he has lived most of his life in the state’s second largest city on the shores of Lake Erie.
He belongs to one of Buffalo’s most prominent families, known for their wealth and civic spirit. His uncle, Jeremy Jacobs Sr., is the billionaire chairman of Delaware North, a sports concession and casino company.
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 Tops supermarket . The office of his real estate company is even closer to the market.
He was just leaving the performance when he found out about the racist attack at the grocery store. Ten people were killed during the shooting in a predominantly black neighborhood. “It was a beautiful Saturday,” he said. “And then I got the message — this horrible, unimaginable, evil thing happened.”
The next day, Jacobs called Kinzer Pointer, a pastor on Buffalo’s East Side whom he has known for almost 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 the frigid February weather, Pointer said.
The two friends talked for more than an hour. One of the 10 victims, Katherine Massey, was a fixture at school board meetings. They spoke 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 will 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. “I haven’t thought about much else since that carnage,” he said.
People later asked Pointer if he was surprised that Jacobs opposed his party’s position on guns. “I just said no,” Pointer said. “This is the Chris Jacobs I know.”
Buffalo’s East Side was a food desert. The shots made things 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.
Returning home to law school, Jacobs briefly filed as a Democrat, frustrated that Republicans were not doing more to reach minority voters.
A few years later he switched his party registration back to Republican, completed that democratic politics encouraged dependence 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 provides private school scholarships to low-income children.
He won election as Erie County Clerk, the first Republican to hold that post in 40 years, and a role that gave him responsibility for issuing gun licenses. He then became a New York State Senator.
In 2020, he ran for Congress with the support of President Donald Trump and won a special election to replace Republican Rep. Chris Collins, who resigned amid a scandal. The New York Republican Committee called Jacobs 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 an Erie County Clerk, he worked to streamline the gun licensing process. During his time in Congress, he co-sponsored bills that would have watered down New York’s tough gun laws. He has received repeated support from gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association.
After the Buffalo shooting, he began speaking to gun rights advocates whom he admired. But their reasons for opposing firearms restrictions were ringing increasingly hollow, Jacobs said. The unwillingness to consider gun control measures as a way to prevent mass shootings is not “intellectually honest,” he said.
As he wrestled with what to do, Jacobs recalled an interaction he once had with a voter outside a polling station while running for the New York State Senate. A mother walked up to him and said, “Just take care of us.” 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 looked down on his two daughters – 3 years old and six months old – as they slept. They might have been in that classroom, he thought.
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When Jacobs abruptly announced his support for gun control measures three days later, Republican officials were speechless. Ralph Lorigo, leader of the Erie County Conservative Party, which supports Republican candidates, called Jacobs to his office.
Due to the new election process in New York, Jacobs ran in a newly drawn constituency that was even more Republican in character. Most people in the district “have a gun in their closet,” Lorigo said. Talking about a ban on assault weapons is a “non-starter.”
A senior Republican official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said he was “completely flabbergasted” by Jacob’s announcement. The official said his candidacy had “become unprofitable” in a conservative district.
Gun rights groups were furious. The leader of one group called Jacobs a “turncoat” and promised to “pursue him hard and fast.” Jacob’s personal cell phone number was released and he received angry messages urging him to resign.
Jacobs claims he may have fended off a key challenge but backed out to avoid the race turning into a divisive referendum on guns. Instead, Jacobs wants to build trust in communities where guns are a way of life – trust that reasonable restrictions on firearms 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 to hear Jacobs was ending his re-election bid. “When you believe in something, you fight to the end,” Jones said. “You don’t fold because the odds are against you.”
Anthony Gioia, a Republican fundraiser and former ambassador to Malta who has known Jacobs and his family for years, expressed dismay at Jacobs becoming radioactive in his party.
“You would have thought he would have committed capital murder or something, that he would have dared to say that there should be some control over guns,” Gioia said. “I’m a Republican, but I’m not a total NRA supporter.”
Jacobs kept his word. In June, he became one of just five Republicans to vote for a measure that would ban the sale of high-capacity magazines and raise the minimum age to purchase a semi-automatic weapon to 21. The bill failed in the Senate. Jacobs also backed landmark bipartisan legislation passed last month that made minor changes to background checks.
Together with two Democrats, Jacobs introduced a measure to restrict the sale of protective vests. 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 firm. He loves public service, he said, and was excited at the prospect of working with a Republican majority in Congress.
“Sometimes there are decisions where you have to take a stand,” he said. “And I felt that this was one.”
Justin Sondel contributed to this report.