Editorial: Practicing Self-Defense; Ayotte Takes Heat For Her Gun Vote

As U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire discovered this week, the so-called “town hall” meetings back home that have become a staple of congressional recesses are high risk, low reward propositions. If all goes well, a few supporters show up to form the choir that can be preached to. But if something controversial comes up, these events, no matter how well orchestrated, are hard to control.

So it was that Ayotte, a first-term Republican, ventured into the Grafton County outpost of Warren, population 904, on Tuesday to deliver what was billed as “A Washington Update.” The fact that a standing-room-only crowd 150 people was waiting for her should have been a tip-off that it might be hard to stay on message.

As Valley News staff writer Mark Davis reported yesterday, the senator gave it the old college try, with a slide presentation on the deficit and health care and then taking carefully screened written questions. About 45 minutes into it, a resident of nearby Wentworth had had enough. He wanted to talk about Ayotte’s recent vote against expanding the system of background checks for firearms purchases, as did many of those attending. “You can’t deny people the right to speak because they haven’t filled out a card,” shouted Eric Knuffke, apparently unaware that for politicians the whole point of these events is to control the agenda.

“I do every Town Hall that way and have a process and we will get to as many questions as we can,” responded the senator.

“You’d like to regulate that, but don’t want to regulate guns?” Knuffke asked, neatly posing a First Amendment issue beside the Second Amendment one.

Knuffke’s timely intervention paved the way for a question from Erica Lafferty, whose mother was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December. She asked why Ayotte, a former prosecutor, seemed more concerned with the purported burden the background-check legislation would have placed on gun sellers than she was with the burden of having one’s mother gunned down in the hall at her elementary school. There’s no good answer to that question, of course, which is why Ayotte tried to change the subject to the need for better mental health treatment.

Context is important here. Gun control supporters are targeting a few Republican senators across the country in hopes of getting them to switch their votes. Ayotte is thought to be susceptible to persuasion, given that she was the only New England senator to vote against the background-check legislation and because polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of New Hampshire residents support it.

But let’s not forget the experience of Dick Swett, a two-term Democratic congressman from New Hampshire who voted for the federal assault weapons ban in 1994 and paid the price. Recalling the vitriol and negative advertising directed at him by the gun lobby, Swett told The New York Times, “It was the worst experience of my life.” He started wearing a bulletproof vest after receiving death threats on the way to losing a re-election bid.

We have long thought that Ayotte’s primary allegiance is to her own ambition. If so, gun control advocates have a chance, but they will have to make a strong case that she will pay a higher political price for opposing extended background checks than she will for supporting them. That means keeping the issue of Ayotte’s vote alive until 2016, when she’s up for re-election. The gun lobby would have no trouble doing that. Let’s see if the gun-control lobby has similar staying power.