Kelly Ayotte, staunch advocate for gun safety? Not.

A bit of a dispute has broken out over just how much pressure Kelly Ayotte is feeling over her vote against the Manchin-Toomey compromise to expand background checks. The gun control forces have organized to pressure her at town hall meetings and on the air, but conservative media have argued that the pressure on her from the left has been exaggerated.

It’s interesting, then, that the major efforts to defend Ayotte by gun rights groups and fellow Republicans tend to emphasize her supposed support for background checks. That seems like a pretty good sign of which way the political winds are blowing on the issue.

Here, for instance, is a new ad that Marco Rubio’s Reclaim America PAC is running in New Hampshire. It says this: “Safety. Security. Family. No one understands these things like a mom. Ayotte voted to fix background checks, strengthen mental health screenings and more resources to prosecute criminals using guns.”

That message echoes a recent NRA ad that thanks Ayotte for her vote, but also says: “Kelly Ayotte voted for a bipartisan plan to make background checks more effective.” Ayotte herself recently defended her vote on the same grounds that she supports.

It’s hard not to notice that the thrust of these defenses center on Ayotte’s support for background checks, and not her opposition to expanding them.

It’s true that Ayotte did vote for an alternative proposal, sponsored by Chuck Grassley, that would have beefed up state sharing of mental health data with the feds, without extending the background check to private sales via commercial portals on the internet and at gun shows. But some gun control groups believe the Grassley approach would actually undermine the overall background check system. What’s more, it needs to be stated again that Senators can support improving data sharing while simultaneously expanding the background check to close the private seller loophole, which unquestionably remains a major problem, as detailed in two terrific New York Times pieces recently — here, and here. There is no need to choose between the two.

It’s interesting that Republican Senators who voted No on Manchin-Toomey — such as Ayotte and Jeff Flake — are not staking out a harder stance here by saying only that, hey, I will never apologize for defending the Second Amendment, and you liberals can just suck on it. Instead, even though they are not willing to support expanding the background check system to close a loophole that poses a threat to public safety, apparently because the NRA won’t let them, they recognize that support for improving background checks is the politically necessary position to take — and is indeed the one that is tantamount to defending children and families from gun violence.

 

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