Back Home, Ayotte Gets Earful: Constituents Angered by Gun Vote

Wednesday, May 01, 2013
Warren, N.H. — U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., fielded angry questions from several people — including a daughter of the slain principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School — about her recent vote against expanded background checks for gun purchases during a Town Hall forum yesterday with constituents.

In her first swing through Grafton County since the controversial vote last month, Ayotte said that she preferred that the government focus on enforcing existing gun laws and improve the mental health care system before approving new legislation.

“My main focus has been on voting to improve our current background system,” Ayotte, a first-term Republican and former New Hampshire attorney general, told a standing-room-only crowd of 150. “We have fallen down on prosecuting criminals and violators of our system of background checks.”

She went on to present figures showing that the Department of Justice had prosecuted fewer people for violating the existing background check system in recent years.

“If we can’t go after the people in the current system who are violating the law, then no matter what we do, the system is not effective,” Ayotte said.

About a dozen protesters, holding signs that read “Shame on you,” and “Constituents not special interests,” stood outside the Warren Town Hall and then filed inside.

Among them was Erica Lafferty , who has worked with gun-control groups after her mother, Dawn Hochsprung, was one of six adults and 20 children killed in the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December.

“You had mentioned that the burden to owners of gun stores that these expanded background checks would cause,” Lafferty told Ayotte. “I’m just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the hall of her elementary school isn’t as important as that?”

“I’m obviously so sorry, as is everyone here, for what you have been through,” Ayotte, who met with Lafferty in Washington, D.C. after the gun vote, told her. “All of us want to make sure Sandy Hook doesn’t happen again. … As you and I know, the issue wasn’t (the) background check system. The issue was mental health. … The legislation on the floor wouldn’t have solved it.”

The forum was billed as “A Washington update,” and Ayotte spent half of the time offering a slide presentation on the deficit, health care and other issues.

But she said she knew why many in the crowd had come to this town of 904 — the gun vote.

Ayotte was the only New England senator to vote against the Manchin-Toomey bill, which would have required the same background checks for people buying guns online or at gun shows as are currently required in licensed gun stores. The bill included an exemption allowing gun transactions between friends and family members to proceed without background checks.

The Senate voted 54-46 in favor of the bill, well short of the 60 votes needed to force a final vote on the legislation. Ayotte also joined with 59 senators to reject a proposed ban on semi-automatic weapons.

Polls since the vote two weeks ago suggest that Ayotte, who is not up for re-election until 2016, could face a backlash for her vote: A Public Policy poll found that her approval rating dropped from 48 percent of voters to 44 percent, and her disapproval numbers climbed from 35 percent to 46 percent, after her vote. The polling group said that 75 percent of New Hampshire voters said they supported the expanded background checks.

But Ayotte harped on shortcomings in the current system, including the failure of states to notify the National Instant Criminal Background System of residents known to be mentally ill and dangerous: Seventeen states, including New Hampshire, have submitted less than 10 names into that system in recent years, Ayotte said.

“Until we address the flaws in our mental health system, we are not going to get at these mass violence situations,” Ayotte said.

After her presentation, Ayotte took questions that had been submitted in writing in advance by audience members. Only one of the queries had to do with the gun vote, which irritated some in the crowd.

Eric Knuffke of Wentworth, N.H., who had raised his hand in hopes of asking a gun question for several minutes, shouted, “You can’t deny people the right to speak because they haven’t filled out a card.”

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

“You’d like to regulate that, but you don’t want to regulate guns?” Knuffke said, angering Ayotte supporters in the crowd.

“Sit down,” many yelled at him. “Shut up,” others chimed in.

The commotion died down, and the microphone was passed to State Rep. Edmond Gionet, R-Lincoln, who told Ayotte that he supported her vote and then launched into a discussion that touched on gun rights and immigration. Gionet, saying he was echoing concerns of his constituents, asked whether a possible effort to create a government gun registry — which is forbidden by federal law — combined with possible immigration reform may spark an armed conflict. “Is there anything in government that (suggests) we may be headed for an internal revolution?” Gionet, a sixth term lawmaker, asked Ayotte.

“Obviously, I hope not,” Ayotte replied, adding that it is ordinary that differing parties have “strong disagreements on fundamental issues” without resorting to violence.

But the conversation turned back to guns, as Lafferty rose to question Ayotte, who said that she had been criticized by some Republicans for even voting to allow the gun bill to be debated in the Senate.

“This is an important debate to have in this country,” Ayotte said. “Ultimately, everything should always be debated and discussed.”

Turning back to Lafferty, Ayotte said, “I know this can’t be easy, so thank you.”

In the crowd was Stephen Silver, pastor of the Lebanon Congregational Church, who criticized Ayotte for not offering specifics about how she would improve care for the mentally ill.

“It raised questions on the mental health front — what does she really want to do with that?” Silver said in an interview. “Does she want more funding for the mentally ill? There were no specifics offered, and I find that disappointing and I expect more from my senator.”

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or (603) 727-3304.