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Gun rights group donates $2,990 to Erie County Clerk’s campaign, other local races

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The 1791 Society, a West Seneca-based gun rights group, donated $11,864 to political candidates in New York State in 2022. Those donations included four donations totaling $2,990 to Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns and two donations totaling $2,675 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, according to data from the New York State Board of Elections.

Named after the year the Bill of Rights was ratified, the 1791 Society advocates for gun rights and an end to gun restrictions.

The society’s Facebook group, mostly discusses gun rights and rising crime rates but have posted allegations of fraud in the 2020 election and misinformation about masks.

Frank Panasuk, the society’s president and a former Hamburg Police detective, has a long history of protesting against gun and COVID-19 restrictions.

Panasuk filmed a pro-gun rights ad with then-Rep. Chris Jacobs last spring, according to The Buffalo News. Panasuk would later disavow Jacobs after the congressman announced support for an assault weapons ban following the May 14 racist mass shooting at Tops. Panasuk also backed Williamsville Mayor Deb Rogers over her opposition to masking requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Panasuk declined to comment for this story.

Kearns, who is up for re-election this cycle, did not respond to requests for comment. His campaign website describes him as someone who is “protecting the Second Amendment” and touts reduced waiting times for pistol permit applications in Erie County.

Panasuk endorsed Kearns in a post made to the 1791 Society’s Facebook page. Panasuk also posted about Kearns’ Democratic opponent in the race, Melissa Hartman, calling her a “RINO Republican recently turned lefty Democrat” who would, if elected, “attack the Erie County pistol permit process to advance her political career.”

Hartman promised to institute a voluntary gun buyback program, provide free gun locks and offer free monthly firearm safety courses if elected, according to a June press release from her campaign.

The gun rights group also made large donations to several Republican candidates for state legislature, including:

  • $1,300 to state assembly candidate Sandra Magnano, a Republican running in the 142nd Assembly District (south Buffalo) against Democrat Pat Burke.They have also actively promoted Magnano’s campaign on their Facebook group.
  • $599 to State Sen. Patrick Gallivan, a Republican running unopposed for the 60th NYS Senate District (Elma)
  • $550 to assembly candidate Scott Marciszewski, a Republican challenging Democrat incumbent William Conrad in the 140th AD (Amherst)
  • $500 to State Sen. Ed Rath, who is challenging Democrat State Sen. Sean Ryan in a newly re-drawn 61st NYS Senate District, including Buffalo, Tonawanda, Amherst and Grand Island.
  • $250 to assembly candidate Frank Smierciak, a Republican challenging Assemblywoman Monica Wallace in the 143rd AD- Chekktowaga

Marciszewski said he had spoken to the 1791 Society on two occasions but was not aware of their donations to his campaign or misinformation posted on the group’s Facebook page.
“I believe in the Second Amendment for self protection, and I believe New Yorkers should have the right to defend themselves under and the Second Amendment protects their right to lawfully own firearms to obtain firearms and to protect themselves, if necessary, with a firearm,” Marciszewski said, adding that he believes his view of the Second Amendment is likely “in line” the 1791 Society’s.

Smierciak said that he had attended several 1791 Society meetings and accepted the group’s support in this election cycle and in the past.

“We just had a major victory in the Supreme Court where we saw the Supreme Court say that New York’s 100-and-something-year-old licensing scheme for concealed carry [permits] was unconstitutional, and in response to this ruling, New York State decided to make the restrictions and requirements even more egregious, strict and unconstitutional,” he said.

“So I’m looking forward to those requirements being overturned in court, and what I would like to see is the full and complete repeal of the SAFE Act, because that is also an egregious overstep and very unconstitutional.”

The SAFE Act requires universal background checks on gun purchases, increases penalties for individuals who possess illegal firearms and bans some semi-automatic weapons.

“I stand by people’s right to say or post whatever they want. That’s my answer,” Smierciak said in response to questions about 2020 election misinformation posted by 1791 Society Facebook group admins. He added that he believed his election loss to Assembly member Monica Piga Wallace in 2020 was fair.

Magnano, Gallivan and Rath did not respond to requests for comment.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.