Editorial: Ayotte’s Vote; Senator Owes Voters an Explanation 

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Members of Congress are representatives, not proxies. They are expected to consult their constituents and act in their best interests, but not necessarily to submit to their wishes. There are times when elected officials defy popular sentiment by following their consciences or exercising independent judgment. Presumably, those instances occur rarely and are followed by a full explanation.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte owes such an explanation to New Hampshire voters, having cast a key vote Wednesday to kill a timid expansion of the background check system to help keep guns out of the wrong hands. Ayotte, a first-term Republican, voted that way despite the fact that New Hampshire residents, like most Americans, overwhelmingly support the expansion of those checks.

Ayotte has provided an explanation, but not one anybody would mistake for convincing.

“I believe that restricting the rights of law-abiding gun owners will not prevent a deranged individual or criminal from obtaining and misusing firearms to commit violence,” Ayotte said before the vote on a bill known as Manchin-Toomey for the two pro-gun senators who sponsored it, Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “While steps must be taken to improve the existing background check system, I will not support the Manchin-Toomey legislation, which I believe would place unnecessary burdens on law-abiding gun owners and allow for potential overreach by the federal government into private gun sales.”

Unless the gun lobby believes that the Second Amendment protects the right of criminals and the mentally ill to possess guns, background checks cannot be considered a form of gun control. They are intended to identify people who are prohibited from owning guns and prevent them from obtaining weapons. The current system is woefully inadequate: Background checks are required only when people purchase firearms through federally licensed dealers. No such screening is required when guns are sold at gun shows or via the Internet within the same state. Toomey-Manchin would have closed that gaping hole, while exempting, perhaps foolishly, other weapons transactions such as those among family members and person-to-person exchanges outside of commercial settings. And because the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms enthusiastically endorsed it on the grounds that it would expand gun rights in a number of other areas, including protections for traveling with firearms and some additional legal immunities, we had concerns about whether it was, on balance, a good deal for those seeking to reduce gun violence.

The measure proposed only to extend and make more effective the existing system for screening buyers, forcing its opponents to fabricate explanations for how it threatened constitutional rights. They did so unblushingly with expert guidance from the National Rifle Association, even suggesting that passing the bill would lead to a national gun registry — despite explicit prohibitions and penalties in the bill for establishing one.

Ayotte’s non-explanation was so vague it raised a number of questions. How would Manchin-Toomey have restricted “the rights of law-abiding gun owners”? What “unnecessary burdens” would it have created by asking those who buy their weapons at gun shows or online to submit to the same requirements as those who go to gun shops? How would requiring background checks for gun show sales have constituted “overreach by the federal government”? Did her background as a prosecutor — one that gave her a firsthand view of the tragedy resulting from the easy availability of guns — give her any pause?

Meanwhile, those who believed that the deaths of 20 elementary schoolchildren and six adults in Newtown, Conn., would result in sufficient horror and revulsion to overcome Second Amendment absolutism are left to wonder: Just how many deaths will it take before elected officials like Ayotte summon the courage to follow the wishes of their constituents rather than the dictates of the gun lobby?