New Hampshire senator pressed to flip on gun background checks

Published: Wednesday, May. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 7A
Last Modified: Thursday, May. 2, 2013 - 7:42 am

WARREN, N.H. – It was 45 minutes into Sen. Kelly Ayotte's town hall-style meeting Tuesday, and the local Republican official screening questions had allowed just one query on gun control. A few in the crowd of about 150 started to get agitated.

"You like to regulate that," shouted Eric Knuffke, 72, a resident of nearby Wentworth who rose to complain about the way speakers were being cherry-picked, "but you don't want to regulate guns."

The outburst reflected how central Ayotte, the first-term New Hampshire Republican, is to the resurgent debate over gun control. As one of the senators who two weeks ago helped scuttle a bill that would have imposed a new standard for background checks, she has become a focus of gun control supporters looking to persuade a handful of senators to switch their votes.

With lawmakers back home for the first time since the defeat of the gun legislation backed by President Barack Obama, the experience of Ayotte is being watched by both sides.

In an effort to settle the room down, Ayotte turned to Erica Lafferty, whose mother was one of the 27 people who died in the shootings in Newtown, Conn. Lafferty, 27, asked the senator about a previous remark that background checks could burden gun stores.

"I'm just wondering," she said, her back stiffening, "why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the halls of her elementary school isn't as important."

The senator, her hoarse voice growing soft, said, "Erica, certainly let me first say, obviously, I'm so sorry."

But her position on new gun laws, she explained, had not changed.

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

Gun control supporters focusing on a handful of Republican senators from Alaska to Arizona to Nevada see Ayotte as a natural if reluctant ally and are pushing her to flip. Second Amendment rights groups, meanwhile, are working to keep her where she is.

Gun rights advocates need point no further than to Dick Swett, whose story still haunts New Hampshire politics after 20 years.

Swett was a third-term Democratic congressman from the state when he cast one of the deciding votes for the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons. He would never see a fourth term.

"It was the worst experience of my life," Swett said, recalling the campaign carried out against him. He received death threats and started wearing a bulletproof vest.

Ayotte, a former state attorney general, prosecuted some of the state's most notorious murder cases, including one in which she won the state's first capital conviction in nearly half a century.

She is also a mother who represents a state that has become more diverse, more affluent and less Republican. She is the only Republican among the five people – all women – who hold statewide office.

"She was elected by these women voters from suburban bedroom communities, some of the people who care the most about this issue," said Jen Bluestein of Americans for Responsible Solutions, the organization run by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly.

Organizing for Action, Obama's nationwide political organization, and other left-leaning advocacy groups are helping to recruit people to rallies across the state and urging them to show up in protest at Ayotte's town meetings this week. Lafferty was part of that effort Tuesday.

Through a spokesman, Ayotte declined a request for an interview.

Ayotte has powerful allies in state and national gun owners' groups, two of which are running ads countering the message coming from gun control advocates.

Gun control has never been an easy sell in the state, where low crime and small government are prized.

"We don't have the large number of those types of crimes, so therefore it's not on our front burner all the time," said Russell Lary, a former police chief for the town of Grantham and, like many current and former law enforcement officials in New Hampshire, an Ayotte supporter.

Ayotte is for now resisting expanding background checks while talking with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., about legislation that would create a federal gun trafficking statute.

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