FITZWILLIAM, N.H. — Sen. Kelly Ayotte ticked through a Power Point presentation at a town meeting today, delivering an update on the federal budget, the challenges of implementing the health care law and on the slow-to-recovery economy.
It seemed like a typical afternoon civics discussion if Gilles Rousseau hadn’t driven here from Connecticut and taken a seat in the front row. He clutched a folder carrying the death certificate of his daughter, Lauren, a first-grade teacher killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“It says she died of multiple gunshot wounds,” he said in an interview, pausing to compose himself, apologizing for his tears. Rousseau said he had one burning question for the senator: Why did you vote against expanding background checks?
He never got the chance to ask. He was not called upon during the hour long town meeting. Some residents held signs outside before the meeting, saying only New Hampshire voters should speak. When another man rose to ask Ayotte to explain why she voted against expanding background checks, several people in the audience of more than 250 people applauded.
“I know people have strong feelings about this issue,” Ayotte began. She said she voted against the bipartisan compromise on background checks last month because she believed gun owners would face an undue burden and she feared it could lead to a federal gun registry.
She did not tell the crowd here that the legislation called for a felony punishment for gun shop owners who tried to create a permanent registry.
“I thought the focus should be on fixing the current background check system and mental health,” Ayotte said.
She declined interview requests, but when asked by ABC News whether she believed her vote was being mischaracterized, she paused and said, “Yes,” before being spirited away by aides.
The biggest Congressional gun control debate in two decades is still reverberating, particularly for several senators who voted against expanding background checks and the bipartisan plan put forward by Senators Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania.
Ayotte was among the senators who had considered supporting the bill, but decided to oppose it in the final days. She is under fire by supporters of gun control and being showered with praise by the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups. She is not up for re-election until 2016, but her vote is the subject of a barrage of television and radio ads from both sides.
Her town meetings across New Hampshire this week have drawn supporters and detractors who expressed less interest in her standard Power Point presentation than her stance on guns. Stephen Murphy, a retiree from Fitzwilliam, stood outside the town meeting with a sign identifying him as a gun owner who was furious at Ayotte’s vote. He said it was his first outward political act, aside from voting, but the Newtown shootings changed his views on guns.
“I came to the meeting to make sure that Kelly knows that not all gun owners are agreeing with what she’s saying,” Murphy said. “Background checks are not a problem. I’ve been though them myself. I’ve owned guns for 50 years. The only thing a background check does to a prospective buyer is it gives you five more minutes to shop for more guns.”