Having found themselves on the wrong side of a cause supported by the vast majority of Americans, opponents of expanded background checks for gun purchases are working to turn the debate upside down by claiming to support the policy.
The most notable example surrounds Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s (R-NH) vote against legislation to mandate background checks for firearm buyers at gun shows and online sales — which current law does not require. Ayotte was the only senator in the Northeast to vote against it.But an ad released Monday by Sen. Marco Rubio praised Ayotte’s vote “to fix background checks.” An earlier spot by the National Rifle Association declared that Ayotte “voted for a bipartisan plan to make background checks more effective.”
In fact, Ayotte (and nearly every Republican senator) voted to block the Manchin-Toomey legislation to expand background checks. Instead she voted for a substitute Republican measure to include more mental health reporting in the FBI criminal background check system and permit recovered mentally ill people to buy a gun.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a gun control advocacy group founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has attacked Ayotte for her vote. A spokeswoman for the group argued that the Republican bill Ayotte voted for “would have actually made it easier for guns to fall into the hands of the dangerously mentally ill.”
“It’s absurd that Senator Ayotte’s vote for a bill created by the Washington gun lobby that actually weakens current laws — is being cited as ‘proof’ of her vote to fix background checks,” MAIG spokeswoman Erika Soto Lamb told TPM by email. “[T]he ad from Senator Rubio’s PAC is just the latest obfuscation in attempts to explain Senator Ayotte’s unpopular vote to the 89% of Granite Staters who support this commonsense reform.”
Tom Jensen, the director of the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling, attributed the messaging in Ayotte’s defense to the fact that 75 percent of voters in New Hampshire support mandatory background checks at gun shows and Internet sales when asked.
“What we’re seeing is that if you want to buttress and prop up the senators who voted against Manchin-Toomey, you’re going to have to resort to those tactics,” Jensen told TPM on Monday. “So [Rubio and the NRA] are trying to finesse it in a way that it sounds like Ayotte was on the side of 75 percent of voters, even though she wasn’t.”
Ayotte has taken taken a beating at home for her vote against background checks. The pushback for her reflects a broader effort by pro-gun entities to hold turf and prevent an exodus among their allies toward the view that most Americans hold.
“Out of state special interests are running false ads attacking me and even lying about my efforts to prevent gun-related violence. I want to set the record straight,” wrote Ayotte in a recent op-ed defending herself. “I support effective background checks and in fact voted recently to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).”
The same tactic has been used recently by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who was recently hammered for leading a mother whose son was killed in the Aurora, Colo. shooting to believe he supported background checks. In reality, he also voted against expanding them.
“I’ve always supported background checks,” Flake said last week.
National support for expanded background checks has dipped from 90 percent in a new PPP poll, but it remains robust and bipartisan at roughly 75 percent. Democrats say they’ll keep fighting. Ayotte and others who voted against background checks when it fell prey to a Senate filibuster last month have since seen their approval ratings fall.
“If you are gonna prop up these folks who voted against this popular bill, the only way you can do it is by sort of re-jiggering the debate,” Jensen said. “The concept of background checks has weathered the political fire. The public is still overwhelmingly behind it.”