WARREN, N.H. — The contentious political fight over gun control moved into the White Mountains of New Hampshire on Tuesday as gun-control activists began to focus on Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) as a prime target in their effort to revive their push for stricter gun laws.
Ayotte was a key, high-profile vote against the bipartisan plan to expand the national gun background-check program, which failed in the Senate two weeks ago despite overwhelming public support and extensive efforts by the White House. The failure was widely seen as a triumph for the National Rifle Association.
Back home this week for a series of town hall meetings, Ayotte is facing new constituent anger and a coordinated effort by gun-control groups to turn her vote into a political liability. These organizations include Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group founded by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), and the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress. Other groups are deploying organizers to New Hampshire, Arizona, Arkansas, Nevada and North Dakota in hopes of shaming moderate senators of both parties who voted against the background-check plan.
In New Hampshire, the national organizations are partnering with local groups that plan to follow her across the state.
“As simple as a background check is, it’s not burdensome,” said Karen Fester, 62, of Bath, N.H., a retired postal worker and member of a local gun club. “It’s just that the people who own gun shops or run gun shows don’t want their way of life threatened.”
Fester showed up in hopes of putting pressure on her senator even though she doesn’t expect Ayotte to change her mind. But by showing up, “it might make her pick up the phone or respond to my e-mails,” she said.
Judy Stadtman, co-founder of the Project for Safer Communities NH and a longtime liberal activist, said, “I have worked on a lot of issue campaigns in this state, and I’ve never seen this level of natural momentum on any issue.”
“There’s a sense that the people who support background checks know that they’re in the mainstream,” Stadtman said. “To be rejected by Ayotte like that, when it was so obvious that many of her constituents wanted her to vote for it — it was a tipping point.”
State Rep. Steve Shurtleff (D) gave Ayotte credit for facing her detractors at several scheduled town halls this week but said he thinks the senator will have to answer to voters on the background check vote, even if her re-election is still more than three years away. With his advancing age, he said, “I forget things a little more often. One thing I will remember in 2016 is Senator Ayotte’s vote on this very important legislation. Especially in the wake of the terrible tragedy we saw at Sandy Hook.”
Ayotte was the only senator from the Northeast to vote no on the measure, which emerged as the latest barometer of the ideological and partisan divide that has gripped Washington in recent years. Even in New Hampshire, where there is a long tradition of support for gun rights, one poll this year showed that almost 95 percent of New Hampshire residents support background checks. “Almost nine in ten (88%) of New Hampshire adults strongly favor this proposal, 6% favor it somewhat, and only 5% oppose it. Even 83% of gun owners favor this proposal,” according to a WMUR Granite State Poll conducted in February.
That has made the New Hampshire freshman an easy target for the gun-control groups as they seek to regroup after the loss on background checks in the Senate. As she travels the state, Ayotte has been confronted by signs that read, “We are the 90%!”
At her first town hall meeting in Warren on Tuesday, Ayotte delivered a lengthy PowerPoint presentation of her positions on gun control, sequestration, the federal deficit and implementation of the new health-care law. Then she asked a moderator to call on members of the audience who had submitted question topics in advance.
Some objected to the format, but eventually Ayotte called on Erica Lafferty, whose mother, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, was the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School and a victim of the mass shooting in December. Lafferty had driven four hours from Connecticut to confront Ayotte.
Speaking to the senator, Lafferty recalled a meeting in Ayotte’s Washington office the day after she voted against the background-check plan.
“You had mentioned that day the burden on the owners of gun stores that the expanded background checks would cause,” Lafferty said. “I’m just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the halls of her elementary school isn’t as important?”