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Stalking Kelly Ayotte and Common Sense

The video of a relative of a victim of the Newtown massacre confronting Senator Kelly Ayotte at a New Hampshire town hall meeting has been all over the cable news channels, as the effort to shame those who opposed efforts to expand background checks for gun purchases escalated this week. Other objects of the increasingly aggressive gun-control lobby like Arizona Senator Jeff Flake have also been subjected to attempts by gun violence victims’ relatives to embarrass him for voting against the Manchin-Toomey amendment. But if these supporters of gun-control bills are really interested in getting something passed, they should listen to one of the measure’s co-sponsors.

Senator Pat Toomey made headlines for saying yesterday that he believed Republicans shied away from his legislation in large part because they were disinclined to support anything that President Obama wanted. This is being interpreted as proof that a) Republicans are obstructionists who are the main reason why Congress is dysfunctional and b) the gun bill was stopped out of sheer malice rather than on the merits.

But if you read what he actually said to his hometown paper, the Allentown Call-Chronicle, you’ll find he said something very different from the spin that has been put on his comments by liberals looking to exploit the gun issue:

Toomey asserted that the passionate minority who railed against the measure simply didn’t trust putting more authority over guns in the hands of the Obama administration.

“I would suggest the administration brought this on themselves. I think the president ran his re-election campaign in a divisive way. He divided Americans. He was using resentment of some Americans toward others to generate support for himself. That was very divisive, that has consequences, that lingers,” Toomey said over breakfast in the Senate member’s only dining room.

“I understand why people have some apprehension about this administration. I don’t agree with the conclusion as it applies to my [background checks] amendment, but I understand where the emotion comes from.”

Toomey is right about what happened among Republicans. Advocates of more gun control can cite the huge majorities polls show backing background checks, but the more they rely on demagogic attempts to smear their opponents as being somehow responsible for tragedies like Newtown, the less likely they will be to persuade many Republicans to join their ranks.

The stalking of Ayotte and other opponents of Manchin-Toomey makes great video but it does nothing to advance the debate on these issues in a way that can persuade people that more background checks will actually lessen the toll of gun violence. The confrontation with Erica Laffey, whose mother was killed by the Newtown shooter, was intended to embarrass the senator. But few of the talking heads on the cable news shows crowing over Ayotte’s poor polling numbers since the gun vote were willing to admit that what she said to Laffey about Newtown having nothing to do with background checks was completely correct. Republicans see this disconnect as yet more evidence that the president and his party are simply interested in expanding government power and not actually doing something about a problem that may have far more to do with mental health than making it harder for guns to be legally obtained.

We shouldn’t doubt the willingness or the ability of liberal advocacy groups like the one organized by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords or the one funded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to go on assailing Ayotte, Flake or any of the other senators who voted no on Manchin-Toomey. As the only Northeastern senator to vote against the amendment, Ayotte is particularly vulnerable, though with three years to go until she faces the voters, it’s a little premature for opponents to be predicting her demise. She’s a popular figure who has faced her critics courageously. Liberals who think this issue alone will sink her are probably underestimating the intelligence of the voters.

But if the issue at stake here is not a partisan one but rather one about what the president continues to insist is “common sense legislation,” it might be smarter for everyone on his side of the divide to stop waving the bloody shirt of Newtown and start talking with Republicans about allaying their concerns about national registries of guns and giving up attempts to chip away at Second Amendment rights.

As Toomey rightly pointed out, the president has done everything in his power to polarize this and other issues to the point where he has made it extremely difficult for Republicans to trust him. The same point applies to other Democrats like New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who made the astounding claim this past week that the lack of background checks made it easier for terrorists like the Tsarnaev brothers in spite of the fact that the guns used by the Boston Marathon bombers were not legally obtained.

Toomey has good reason to be frustrated over the failure of a measure that would not have infringed on gun rights. But the problem here is that both parties are playing partisan politics on gun issues in the aftermath of Newtown, not just the Republicans. So long as the argument for background checks or any other gun-control measure is framed in purely emotional terms that cannot establish any link between the law and atrocities like Newtown, these laws will continue to fail to attract Republican support. It is yet to be seen whether Democrats who think this will help them win the 2014 midterm elections are right. Laffey and some of the other Newtown families have every right to our sympathy and to roam the countryside in search of politicians to lobby as much as they like. But if Democrats are really interested in getting another version of Manchin-Toomey passed, they need to lower their voices and start negotiating with Republicans rather than stalking them.