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Monday, December 24, 2012

New Hampshire Sens. Ayotte and Shaheen non-specific about their stance on gun control

As the nation braces for a heated debate over gun control, the state’s two U.S. senators have remained largely silent. But a look through the pair’s respective records shows diverging thoughts on the matter.

Over the past week, U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen have responded to the tragic Newtown, Conn., shooting primarily through written statements, showing their differing views on gun control. ...

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As the nation braces for a heated debate over gun control, the state’s two U.S. senators have remained largely silent. But a look through the pair’s respective records shows diverging thoughts on the matter.

Over the past week, U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen have responded to the tragic Newtown, Conn., shooting primarily through written statements, showing their differing views on gun control.

Shaheen, the state’s senior senator, offered her support for further gun control as part of a larger effort to address gun-related violence.

“We need a comprehensive approach that includes improving access to mental health services, better enforcement of our current laws, and we need to get deadly assault weapons off our streets,” the Madbury Democrat said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, Ayotte, a Nashua Republican, emphasized her support for gun owners’ rights while calling for a full review of the nation’s prevention laws.

“While Sen. Ayotte believes that denying the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens will not change the behavior of those intent on using firearms to commit horrific crimes, she supports a thorough review of our laws ... to determine what can be done to deter and prevent mass shootings,” Ayotte spokesman Jeff Grappone said in a statement.

The statements may be vague, but through their voting careers, the senators have taken different sides on the gun control debate.

When she first ran for Senate in 2010, Ayotte, the former N.H. attorney general who has earned an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, campaigned as a fierce gun rights activist, noting her prior opposition to renewing a federal assault weapons ban, among other pro-gun stands.

In 2009, during her time as attorney general, Ayotte joined law enforcement officials from 22 other states in opposing a renewal of the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.

“We share the Obama administration’s commitment to reducing illegal drugs and violent crime within the United States. ... However, we do not believe that restricting law-abiding Americans’ access to certain semi-automatic firearms will resolve any of these issues,” Ayotte and the other attorneys general wrote at the time.

But during the campaign, Ayotte also drew criticism from Senate opponents, who labeled her soft on guns due to her prior stand against the so-called Castle Doctrine.

In 2006, as attorney general, Ayotte joined Democratic Gov. John Lynch in opposing the Castle Doctrine, later known as “Stand Your Ground,” which allowed anyone in public to use deadly force to defend themselves against someone who first threatened to use that force.

That year, with Ayotte’s support, Gov. John Lynch vetoed the bill, which eventually passed in 2011, despite Lynch’s opposition.

“We are not aware of any problems with the current law that warrants such a significant expansion of the law,” Ayotte wrote at the time, along with members of the state sheriffs and police associations. “The use of deadly force in self-defense should be justified under the law only in those situations where there is no reasonable alternative.”

On the other side of the aisle, Shaheen has remained fairly noncommittal throughout her career, which also includes three terms in the governor’s office.

In 1993, during her second term in the state Senate, Shaheen expressed support for the federal assault weapons ban, eventually signed into law by President Bill Clinton. But as governor, she did not seek to make wholesale changes to the state’s gun control laws, even after the shooting death of an Epsom police officer and two state troopers during her time in office.

Rather, Shaheen signed off on a series of minor laws, making it a crime to store a firearm negligently and establishing a minimum jail sentence for anyone trying to buy a gun illegally.

These efforts earned Shaheen a failing grade from the NRA, which rates governors and other politicians based on their support for gun owners’ rights.

Neither Ayotte nor Shaheen have received contributions from the NRA in recent elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks federal campaign contributions – though the association donated $4,950 in 2010 to Shaheen’s opponent, former U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu, agency records show.

Looking forward, gun control may play an even larger role in elections ahead, analysts said.

It could emerge as a key issue in 2014, when Shaheen is up for re-election, according to Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. Or it could follow Ayotte all the way to 2016, when she could emerge as a presidential or vice presidential candidate, Scala said.

“Gun rights is one of those issues. It will be interesting to see where this goes,” he said.

“Will anyone be holding (Shaheen) responsible if there’s inaction?” he asked. “Or will voters be willing to grant (Ayotte) the flexibility to compromise? ... That’s the dilemma they have to face.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Berry on Twitter (Telegraph_JakeB).