WARREN, N.H. – The fight of over gun control moved into the White Mountains of New Hampshire on Tuesday as groups pushing for stricter gun laws confronted Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) on her decision to vote against a bipartisan plan to expand the national gun background check system.
Ayotte is the only senator from the Northeast to stand against the background check bill, making her a prime target for gun control groups that plan to follow her this week across the state to several public events. They're buoyed by new polling that suggests Ayotte's popularity is slipping here because of her vote.
During a town hall meeting in this tiny mountainside village, Ayotte stuck to a pre-determined format that included a lengthy PowerPoint presentation of her positions on gun control, sequestration, the federal deficit and implementation of the health-care reform law. Then she asked a moderator to call on members of the audience who had submitted prewritten questions.
But the format angered Eric Knuffke, 74, from nearby Wentworth, who stood up and asked to be heard after failing to be called upon by raising his hand.
“I do every town hall meeting this way and have a process and we’ll get to as many questions as I can,” Ayotte told him.
“You like to regulate that, but you don’t want to regulate guns?” he shouted.
The room burst into applause. Several people screamed at Knuffke to sit down and shut up. He told them to do the same.
When the crowd settled, some people asked Ayotte to call on Erica Lafferty, whose mother, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, was the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School and a victim of the mass shooting in December. Lafferty had driven four hours from Connecticut to confront Ayotte.
When she spoke, Lafferty recalled a meeting in Ayotte’s Washington office the day after she voted against expanded background checks.
“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?”
Her voice strained by a cold, Ayotte quietly explained that she voted against the plan because of its flaws – it wouldn’t have stopped the Sandy Hook killer, couldn’t stem the flow of illegal guns and won’t compel the Justice Department to aggressively enforce or prosecute existing gun laws.
“What we need to do is focus on mental health, ultimately,” Ayotte told the crowd. “But I understand and respect that you have a different viewpoint.”
“I took a lot of heat, I will say, from even members of my own party that didn’t like the fact that I voted to go to debate on this issue,” Ayotte added later. “We can have strong disagreements, but ultimately everything should be debated and discussed. And I’ll continue to do that.”
A recent poll by Public Policy Polling finds that Ayotte's popularity has slipped in the weeks since the background check vote. Anger also is evident on the pages of Granite State newspapers, whose editors are marveling at the sharply-worded critiques of Ayotte.
“In the name of terrorists and violent criminals, I would like to thank you for your vote protecting their rights to purchase guns without background checks,” wrote one woman from Milford, N.H. to The Cabinet Press newspaper. “After all, the gun manufacturers making billions on the incredible sales of guns and the N.R.A. leadership who profit from this must be protected at all cost, the woman added, who concluded by saying: “Thanks, Kelly, sleep well.”
As she travels across New Hampshire, Ayotte need only turn on the radio to hear some encouragement, as the National Rifle Association and National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade association, began airing radio ads Monday thanking her.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam dismissed the increased activism on the other side.
“This is part of their larger game plan to try and manufacture support for their cause and to try to paint support for gun rights as a liability,” he said. “This is a fight that will be won on the ground and that’s where the NRA is strongest. We’re able to mobilize people.”
But this week the NRA might have met its match. Gun control groups have deployed 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 organizers are mostly younger, well-dressed twentysomethings wearing hipster sunglasses, presenting an odd juxtaposition at a town hall meeting packed mostly with retirees in flannel shirts and jeans.
Before the meeting, the organizers met with a group of local women to figure out how they might compel Ayotte to call on Lafferty.
Karen Fester, 62, of Bath, N.H., is a retired postal worker and member of a local gun club. A newer member of her state’s active political culture, she felt that supporting an expanded background check program was “a wise thing to do.”
“As simple as a background check is, it’s not burdensome. It’s just that the people who own gun shops or run gun shows don’t want their way of life threatened,” she said.
Fester 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.
Nancy Martlind, 64, of Sugar Hill, N.H., agreed with Fester that their activism might not change Ayotte’s opinion – but she sees a more immediate benefit.
“We have her on the record,” Martlind said of Ayotte. “Then there’ll be another big shooting incident, and we’ll know where she stands.”
Lafferty, whose parents used to vacation at a mountainside inn just a few towns away, said Ayotte’s answer on Tuesday was different than what she’s heard before.
“I’m going wherever she goes next,” Lafferty said.