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For Ayotte, Gun Reform Efforts Meet Election Year Politics

Sen. Kelly Ayotte has found herself at the center of gun policy debates several times over the course of her political career.

In the wake of last week's mass shooting in Orlando, the debate over guns and how to keep them away from potential terrorists has been center stage in the U.S. Senate.  And so has New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte.

A bill she helped draft Monday aims to bar suspected terrorists from buying guns, and the issue of gun control is looking to be key to her re-election effort this year. But Ayotte’s involvement with gun policy and politics extends farther back that her six years in the U.S Senate.

As New Hampshire Attorney General, Ayotte’s office regularly weighed in on gun measures before state lawmakers. Others did most of the talking, but as the state's top law enforcement official, Ayotte stood at then-Governor John Lynch's side as Lynch vetoed a stand-your-ground bill back in 2006.

Gun-rights advocates decried that veto. And Ayotte’s support for it was raised in the 2010 GOP Senate primary. Ayotte’s rival Bill Binnie highlighted it in a controversial TV ad that called Ayotte weak on guns.

But Ayotte’s background as attorney general was her calling card in 2010, and her tough-on-crime reputation was cited by supporters and candidate alike.

“I’m a prosecutor not a politician," she told reporters in 2010. "But I’ve had a leadership position where I’ve had to make the tough decisions and get results for the people of New Hampshire.”

Yet by the time that campaign was in full swing, Ayotte’s posture on gun issues seemed less like that of a prosecutor, and more like that of a politician out to court Second-Amendment activists.

Case in point is a questionnaire Ayotte filled out for the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition.  Ayotte detailed a fresh 2010 NRA membership. She also promised to oppose new restrictions on gun sales or ownership, support eliminating gun-free school zones, and lift the 1986 ban on the manufacture of machine guns for civilian use. But in an election dominated by other issues, guns never really came up. 

But guns have flared as an issue several times since -- always following a mass shooting. Three years ago, after Ayotte joined most Senate Republicans to vote down a Sandy Hook inspired plan to expand gun background checks to cover sales at guns shows and on the internet, she was targeted by gun control advocates. Here’s Ayotte explaining herself after being questioned by the daughter of Sandy Hook shooting victim:

“As you and I both know the issue wasn’t a background check in Sandy Hook. Mental health is, I hope, the one that we can agree on going forward and getting done, because that seem to be an overriding issue in all of this.” 

Since them, nothing has gotten done. That’s despite polling indicating solid support for specific reforms, including expanded background checks. In most Senate votes, Ayotte has followed the lead of her party. On Monday, for instance, Ayotte helped kill a Democratic bill to expand the background check system, while backing a failed GOP bill that would boost funding for checks and redefine mental competence.

Asked this week how her views on gun issues have changed through the years, Ayotte declined a direct response.

“I would just say that I am looking forward to each proposal on its face and I am focused on getting bipartisan results that protect people’s Second Amendment rights but also make sure that we are protecting people on safety measures including, obviously, this issue that is right before us," Ayotte said.

If history is any guide, striking any deal on guns -- however limited – that meets Ayotte’s test will be a tall order.  

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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