The Democratic push on gun control on Monday has at least one Republican open to bipartisanship: Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
Late Monday afternoon, Ayotte — a moderate who represents the purple state of New Hampshire — announced on the Senate floor that she’ll be supporting the Democratic caucus’s plan to bar those investigated as terrorists from purchasing firearms.
Ayotte announced she will also be voting for the Republican Sen. John Cornyn’s countermeasure, and said she hopes a bipartisan committee can craft a compromise bill acceptable to both sides. (Ayotte said on Twitter she’d be working on it with Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a vulnerable Republican with a history of bipartisan legislation who is pushing a pared-back version of Democrats’ proposal.)
The political incentives here for Ayotte are obvious. She’s facing a tough reelection bid, and has fielded awkward questions in her home state about her opposition to the gun bill. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias points out, the Democrats’ proposal also polls well.
Still, it wasn’t clear if those incentives would be enough to let anyone overcome the closing of partisan ranks behind each party’s proposal. By supporting both the Democratic and Republican measures, Ayotte is demonstrating that there just might be some daylight on gun control — or at least hedging her bets.
Republicans see gun control as distraction from real cause of Orlando shooting: terrorism
Before Ayotte took the floor, both Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid both attacked the other party’s approach as wildly unrealistic political posturing.
Their speeches reflected two entirely different worldviews — not just on the question of which party had the better gun control proposal but even on what topic made sense for discussing the Orlando shooting.
McConnell’s speech, for instance, made almost no mention of gun control — except to characterize it as a Democratic distraction from the root cause of the Orlando shooting, which McConnell said was President Barack Obama’s failure to crush Islamic State terrorism.
"The president’s campaign to contain ISIL has not been sufficient to defeat this group abroad or to prevent more," said McConnell, who referenced the Islamic State more than 12 times during his speech. "[Obama] needs to finally lead a campaign to accomplish this objective or prepare the military to help the next president do that if he won’t. ... The most important way to prevent more terrorist tragedies at home is by defeating terrorism overseas."
Reid’s response on the floor, meanwhile, didn’t cite the Islamic State once. Instead, he rattled off a list of mass shootings across the country — in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Aurora, Colorado, for instance — and cleaved off Orlando entirely from the broader question of responding to Islamic terrorism.
"After each tragedy, we Democrats try to pass sensible gun safety measures," Reid said. "Sadly, our efforts are blocked."
Ayotte: "We do have some common ground here"
In announcing her plan to vote for both versions, New Hampshire’s Ayotte spoke in language that reflected both Reid and McConnell’s interpretations of the Orlando shootings. She called attention to both Obama’s record on the Islamic State and the fact that a better system could have alerted the FBI to Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, before the massacre.
"ISIS continues to plan and inspire attacks against us here at home, and we do have to take this fight to ISIS much more aggressively," she said.
McConnell, in his speech, had criticized the Democrats’ proposal because while it would prohibit suspected terrorists from buying firearms, it wouldn’t stop them from buying explosives and bomb materials. This was not an argument Ayotte made: She broke with the Senate leader not just over the ultimate measure to support but also on the broader question of whether restricting firearms access could meaningfully impede terrorists’ ability to kill indiscriminately.
"We do have some common ground here: that terrorists should not be permitted to purchase firearms," Ayotte said. "Terrorists should not be permitted to purchase firearms."