On Recess, Senators Get An Earful Over Failed Gun Vote

Senators whose votes on the gun bill got attention back home have been getting an earful during the recess week, when many are back in their states.

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U.S. senators are on recess this week. It's their first break since the Senate's narrow rejection of the Manchin-Toomey amendment, which would have expanded background checks for gun purchases. Senators who opposed the measure, and who live in battleground states, are now home and hearing from both sides of the gun debate, especially from groups pushing for greater regulation since the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Ever since New Hampshire's Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte voted no on the Manchin-Toomey amendment, she's been getting a lot of attention. Roughly nine out of 10 Granite Staters favor background checks. New polls show Ayotte's vote against them has not been popular. She's been facing voters this week and getting her share of criticism.

SENATOR KELLY AYOTTE: I know that many of you are here because of the recent legislation on the floor of how to address violence...

GONYEA: This is from a town hall in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, this afternoon. John Keenan stepped up to the mic. He's a Republican who says he no longer supports Ayotte because of her gun vote.

JOHN KEENAN: I really don't understand. It doesn't make sense to me. What is wrong with universal background checks?

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: The senator describes the background checks proposed in the Manchin-Toomey bill as burdensome, and she spoke of mental illness screening.

AYOTTE: Ultimately, mental health is an area that, particularly in these mass violence situations, we should, I think, be able to come to some improvements on, that we can move forward with.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: At an event earlier in the week, Ayotte was confronted by the daughter of the school principal who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. Again, she said background checks would not have stopped that killer from getting guns. Ayotte is also featured in radio ads, critical ones paid for by the group founded by shooting victim and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and pro-Ayotte ads paid for by the National Rifle Association.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And it's why Kelly had the courage to oppose misguided gun control laws that would not have prevented Sandy Hook. Kelly Ayotte is focused on prosecuting lawbreakers and fixing our broken mental health system.

GONYEA: It's not just New Hampshire. In Arizona, Senator Jeff Flake is another Republican who voted against the background check proposal. He appeared on KJZZ Public Radio in Phoenix. Steve Goldstein is the interviewer.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO INTERVIEW)

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: When you hear 90 percent of Americans prefer expanded background checks, do you think that's an expanded number that's fake, or do you think it's...

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: No, I do think people know that we need to strengthen our background check system.

GONYEA: But Flake, too, says Manchin-Toomey went too far. Four Democrats joined 41 Republicans in voting against the background check amendment, among them Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, who's up for re-election next year. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said he'll spend money to defeat Pryor in 2014. But University of Arkansas professor Janine Parry says Pryor's vote likely helps him politically, as does criticism from Bloomberg.

JANINE PARRY: It's a very strong vibe here in the state now that it did him a favor in the sense that he can now position himself as a defender of the Arkansas way of life against eastern liberals, if you will.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, polls don't show public outrage on the issue. Michael Dimock at Pew Research says just 15 percent say they're angry that Congress hasn't acted.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: What that suggests is that even though people support the idea of background checks, the bill was seen by many as more than that. Rightly or wrongly, I think a lot of people saw this as a step towards gun control, and that's a much more controversial issue.

GONYEA: But Dimock says watch to see if what he calls the activist gap begins to narrow. Gun rights groups such as the NRA have long outspent and out-organized their opponents on gun-related issues. There are at least early signs that that could change. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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