May 16. 2013 10:26PM

Advocacy group keeps spotlight on Ayotte gun vote

State House Bureau

CONCORD — A New Hampshire advocacy group continued to pressure U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte over her vote against the Manchin-Toomey amendment to enhance federal background checks to purchase guns.

At a Granite State Progress and Mayors Against Illegal Guns news conference Thursday, the fathers of a child and a teacher killed in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting criticized Ayotte for voting against the amendment.

“I’m here today because my daughter can’t be and I’m not going anywhere, nor are the thousands of other family members of victims and survivors of gun violence,” said Gilles Rousseau, whose daughter was a teacher at Sandy Hook. “This time around, the American people are paying close attention, and Senate Ayotte’s lies have not gone unnoticed. I urge her to reconsider her position.”

Ayotte contends she voted for a plan to improve the current National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

She has said the Grassley-Cruz amendment she supports addresses mental health gaps in the system, adds resources to improve school safety and criminalizes gun trafficking and straw purchases.

But speakers at Thursday’s news conference said the amendment makes it easier for those with serious mental illness to obtain guns and is a decoy crafted by the gun lobby to give cover to Ayotte and others voting against background checks.

Judy Stadtman, co-founder of NH Project for Safer Communities, said the Grassley amendment does not require background checks for the private sale of firearms or for internet sales, which account for the sale of 6.6 million guns a year.

“Sen. Ayotte chose the Washington gun lobby over her constituents,” Stadtman said. “She chose the NRA over the safety of New Hampshire communities.”

Neil Heslin, whose son Jesse was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, recently traveled to Arkansas to meet with U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, who like Ayotte voted against the Manchin-Toomey amendment.

“On my son’s behalf, I feel it is something I have to do,” Heslin said quietly. “In a town like Mayberry, 26 people were brutally murdered in less than three minutes. Something has to change.”

He and Rousseau, and John Cantin of Manchester, whose daughter Missy was murdered by her husband several years ago, all acknowledged enhanced background checks would not have prevented a Newtown massacre, but said they would help to reduce gun violence.

Ayotte spokesman Jeff Grappone said the senator has a long record of putting criminals behind bars and preventing crime.

“From the start of this debate, Senator Ayotte has kept her focus on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and improving our mental health system,” Grappone said. “She voted for legislation that had bipartisan support to fix the current broken background check system, increase the prosecution of those who illegally seek to obtain firearms, and provide additional resources for school safety, while protecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens. She also worked across party lines to pass a bipartisan amendment in the Senate to strengthen the nation’s mental health system.”

Al Jones, 56, of Concord stood at the news conference with a sign saying he was with the National Rifle Association and supports Ayotte. Afterward, he said he has bought and sold guns for over 30 years and never sells a gun to someone he doesn’t know without doing a check.

The current law needs to be enforced he said, noting only 1 percent of those who try to illegally buy guns are ever prosecuted.

Groups like Mayors against Illegal Guns have targeted Ayotte and her vote, running ads and pursuing her at appearances. Gun rights groups such as the NRA and the America Future Fund have supported her through televisions ads of their own.