Gun control forces take fight to New Hampshire, Sen. Kelly Ayotte

Gun control advocates are taking their message to the states, through ads, town hall meetings, and shaming campaigns. They poked Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire on Tuesday.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire waves as she ends her speech at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., in March. Ayotte, who voted against the gun bill and, notably, was the only senator from the Northeast to vote no on the provision to extend background checks to more gun buyers, have emerged as ground zero in that battle.

If you thought the gun debate ended two weeks ago when the Senate voted against expanded background checks and a host of other gun-control measures, think again.

Gun-control advocates are reviving the issue at the state level through ads, town hall meetings, and shaming campaigns in an effort to get lawmakers to change their vote and the Senate to reconsider new gun laws.

New Hampshire and its junior senator, Kelly Ayotte (R), who voted against the gun bill and, notably, was the only senator from the Northeast to vote no on the provision to extend background checks to more gun buyers, have emerged as ground zero in that battle.

Back home in New Hampshire, Senator Ayotte is feeling the heat at town hall meetings, where gun-control advocates are expressing anger. Erica Lafferty, whose mother, Dawn, was gunned down by Newtown, Conn., shooter Adam Lanza in December, confronted Ayotte at a town hall meeting in Warren, N.H., Tuesday.

“You had mentioned ... the burden on owners of gun stores that the expanded background checks would harm. I am just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the halls of her elementary school isn't more important than that,” Ms. Lafferty asked.

We can’t imagine a more uncomfortable moment.

After expressing condolence for her loss, Ayotte said her position on gun laws hadn’t changed.

“As you and I both know, the issue wasn’t a background check system issue in Sandy Hook,” she said. “Mental health, I hope, is the one thing we can agree on going forward.”

With that, the encounter was done – but it’s likely to be the first of many confrontations Ayotte, and other senators who voted against the gun bill, will face in coming weeks.

In fact, Ayotte is one of a handful of senators – including Arizona’s Jeff Flake (R), Nevada’s Dean Heller (R), North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp (D), and Montana’s Max Baucus (D) – who are drawing fire for their "no" votes on background checks.

(Senator Flake recently said his vote puts his popularity “somewhere just below pond scum.” Indeed, a recent Public Policy Polling survey found him among the least popular senators in the country, with a 34 percent approval rating and a 51 percent disapproval rating, after the gun vote.)

Polls indicate similar trends for some other senators who voted against expanded background checks, including Ayotte. A Public Policy Polling survey also found that half of New Hampshire voters were less likely to support her in 2016 as a result of her vote. Nonetheless, a separate University of New Hampshire poll found her approval rating virtually unchanged, with 50 percent approving of her performance.

You can be sure gun-control advocates are looking to drive those ratings down.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, President Obama’s Organizing for Action, the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, shooting victim and former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and some of the Newtown families have determined to carry on the gun-control fight, moving from the halls of Congress to the state level and to the airwaves with their message.

At the New Hampshire town hall meeting, Mayors Against Illegal Guns circulated signs reading #ShameOnYou, which were waved at Ayotte, whom critics have dubbed “NRAyotte.”

The same group also released a TV ad on Tuesday attacking the law enforcement credentials of Ayotte, a former state attorney general known for prosecuting some of New Hampshire's most notorious murder cases, with this message: “Senator Ayotte is giving criminals a pass.”

The National Rifle Association, of course, isn’t just standing by. It, along with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, are coming to Ayotte’s defense, airing ads thanking her and others who voted against the gun bill.

“Kelly Ayotte is not just a senator,” says a radio ad sponsored by NRA New Hampshire. “She’s also a mom who cares about protecting our kids. She knows the only way to prevent tragedies like Sandy Hook is to fix our broken mental health system.”

At this point it’s unlikely Ayotte and other senators will yield to the pressure. (Ayotte isn’t up for reelection until 2016, by which point her team hopes the issue will be a distant memory.)

But as The New York Times notes, “there is precedent for a Republican New Hampshire senator having a change of heart on gun control. Judd Gregg, whom Ms. Ayotte succeeded in 2011, initially voted against the assault weapons ban in 1994. He supported it 10 years later when it came up for renewal, though it ultimately never became law.”

Senator Gregg (R) won reelection after that vote, but Rep. Dick Swett (D) of New Hampshire, who cast one of the deciding votes for the assault weapons ban, didn’t fare so well.

He received death threats, started wearing a bulletproof vest, and told the Times, “It was the worst experience of my life.”

Needless to say, he didn’t win a fourth term.

No doubt Ayotte has taken note. 

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