by Jason Snyder
Gun safety advocates are not backing down after bipartisan legislation to expand background checks failed in the Senate, and are promising a new push to gain the five votes necessary to pass legislation supported by overwhelming public majorities. Are the political winds shifting in favor of gun safety?
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the bill's sponsor, plans to reintroduce the legislation, which would close the background check loophole for firearms purchased at gun shows and online. And New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, who voted against the legislation, is a primary target for groups on both sides of the gun debate.
Ayotte Major Target for Gun Safety Groups
Ayotte now has a negative approval rating, according to recent polls, with 46% of voters disapproving and just 44% approving of her performance; that is a net 15 point shift from October, when she was last polled, when just 35% disapproved and 48% approved. Three-quarters of voters in Ayotte's state of New Hampshire -- including 95% of Democrats, 74% of independents, and 56% of Republicans -- say they support background checks.
Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS), a group founded by former US Representative Gabrielle Gifford and her husband, has purchased $375,000 of radio ads urging Ayotte and other Senators to change their minds, and praising Senators who supported the legislation. The ads airing in New Hampshire accuse Ayotte of "opposing the will of the people," in favor of remaining loyal to the special interest gun lobby.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is also targeting Ayotte, spending $700,000 on ads airing in New Hampshire charging the Senator with "giving criminals a pass" -- a direct challenge to the former prosecutor who ran on her tough-on-crime record.
And voters have pressed Ayotte on her gun vote at a series of town hall meetings.
"The outside game is about convincing those who voted no that they've made the wrong choice. And that is happening. There are definitely second thoughts out there," Jim Kessler, a gun policy expert at the Democratic think tank Third Way, told the Los Angeles Times. Senators who opposed the agreement, he said, "expected the politics to work for them after the vote and so far it hasn't."
Gun Lobby Stretches the Truth in Defending Ayotte
The other side of the debate is also targeting Ayotte, but with a surprising twist.
The NRA has spent $25,000 on pro-Ayotte radio ads and Sen. Marco Rubio's Reclaim America PAC has made a six figure TV ad buy praising the New Hampshire Senator. But perhaps in recognition of current public opinion, the ads don't praise Ayotte on Second Amendment grounds: they actually praise her for supporting background checks.
The NRA ad says, "Kelly Ayotte voted for a bipartisan plan to make background checks more effective."
Reclaim America ads claim "Ayotte voted to fix background checks, strengthen mental health screenings and more resources to prosecute criminals using guns."
The ads reference Ayotte's support for alternative legislation, promoted by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), that would have devoted more resources to prosecuting gun crimes and encouraged more sharing of mental health information between states and the federal government -- but without closing the gaping gun show loophole (and which could actually undermine the existing background check system).
Gun Control Activists "Keep Pushing"
The tack the NRA and pro-gun groups have taken with these ads suggests the political winds may be shifting.
In recent decades the NRA has prevailed when debates over firearms policy have erupted, but some suspect that the tenacity and organization of today's gun safety groups could lead to a different outcome.
"The typical pattern with gun policy is: a terrible thing happens, the country gets outraged and demands action, nothing happens, and we go back to the status quo," Kristin Goss, a Duke University political science professor who has written extensively about the politics of gun control, told USA Today. "That's not happening this time. Instead, there is a huge effort by gun control activists to keep pushing."