In U.S. Senate primary, Brown’s opponents tout gun records
When Scott Brown breezed through the lobby of the Courtyard Marriott on his way to an event in the Grappone Conference Center in Concord several weeks ago, one hotel employee didn’t hesitate to walk right up to the potential U.S. Senate candidate and ask a question that’s on many Republicans’ minds.
“Where are you on the Second Amendment?” the employee asked.
Brown’s likely to hear that question again and again as he travels across the state to introduce himself to voters. At a December fundraiser for the New Hampshire Republican Party, shortly after Brown moved here, a large crowd of gun owners showed up to protest him. Brown’s three Republican primary opponents see an opportunity here, and all three are making gun rights a key piece of their platforms. Former state senator Jim Rubens is making the most aggressive play for the gun vote, as he spent two weeks traveling the state on a “Second Amendment Protection Tour.” Conservative activist Karen Testerman spoke at a rally in Concord yesterday against new gun restrictions in Connecticut. Former U.S. senator Bob Smith, meanwhile, points to his strong ratings from the National Rifle Association while in Congress.
The difference between the three of them and Brown? He’s expressed support for an assault weapons ban, and they haven’t. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Brown said he’d support a federal assault weapons ban, but was out of office when a Senate vote took place. Massachusetts has an assault weapons ban, which was passed before Brown was a state lawmaker, and he’d previously said the issue should be handled at the state level. As a state lawmaker, Brown voted on an update of the state ban in 2004 that included several changes supported by gun groups.
Brown didn’t comment for this story, but his communications director said he’s a strong defender of the Second Amendment.
“Scott Brown has always supported the Second Amendment. The right to bear arms is a basic American freedom,” Communications Director Elizabeth Guyton wrote in an email.
At least one of the state’s major gun groups isn’t buying it.
“Scott Brown has a horrible gun record. Honestly, he stands for nothing except for Scott Brown in my opinion,” said Mitch Kopacz, president of Gun Owners of New Hampshire. “Frankly, I don’t think a pretty face and a pickup truck is going to fool New Hampshire voters.”
Although Brown is already being treated as the presumed winner of the Republican primary, gun groups are often successful at driving their members to the polls on Election Day. That means courting gun groups is a crucial part of running in a Republican primary.
“The intensity is very high, and they vote,” former Republican House speaker Donna Sytek said. “So it’s not a matter of pouring money into a campaign. Because of the intensity of their feelings, they will turn out. They can mobilize.”
Rubens visited 15 gun shops and groups over a two-week period last month. On those stops, he talked with gun owners and gun salesmen and shared his views about how to make the country safer. Limiting what kinds of guns people can buy isn’t one of them. The Republican primary electorate here has never voted on a candidate who’s willing to “compromise” on gun rights, Rubens said.
Mass shootings and gun violence won’t be stopped by limiting magazine capacity or banning so-called assault weapons, Rubens said. Instead, he’s been laying out plans to voters that include fixing the mental health system and making sure the background check system is used appropriately. Rubens does not endorse expanding background checks, but thinks they could be used more effectively. Gun dealers he has spoken with agree that the system could be better financed and enforced, Rubens said.
“Republican primary voters are concerned about the extent to which our nominees will be able to contrast with the incumbent Jeanne Shaheen,” Rubens said. The “Second Amendment is one of those contrast points.”
Shaheen has expressed support for both limiting the magazine capacity allowed in guns and for implementing a federal assault weapons ban.
Testerman stood with Republican gun activists this weekend against new gun regulations recently enacted in Connecticut in response to the December 2012 school shooting.
A group called the New Hampshire Three Percenters organized the rally. The group’s goal is to “set up a New Hampshire network of armed, informed and able bodied men and women, so that when the government or other outside forces makes the American way of life difficult, we can fight back,” according to its website.
Like Rubens, Testerman believes limiting law-abiding citizens’ access to guns won’t solve any problems. Criminals will get the weapons anyway, she said. The real way to combat violence is by enforcing the laws that are on the books, improving the education system and promoting strong families, she said.
To show the importance of gun rights to voters, Testerman pointed to former U.S. representative Dick Swett, a New Hampshire lawmaker who was voted out of office in the 1990s after voting for a federal assault weapons ban. Second Amendment rights are a major issue for New Hampshire voters, Testerman said, and Brown should be prepared to defend his record.
Smith, meanwhile, says he’s the only candidate in the primary with a strong gun record on the Senate floor. Both the NRA and Gun Owners of America gave him consistently strong ratings during his 18 years in Congress, both in the House and Senate. So far in the campaign, he’s traveled to gun shows and plans to visit firing ranges and gun shops.
“I think it will be a big issue in the race, because Brown’s record is not good on it, so that will make it a key demarcation between myself and Brown, and I guess the others, too,” Smith said.
Brown, for his part, has visited sporting shops and says he’s willing to engage with voters on his gun record. As a state senator, he received top ratings from the Gun Owners’ Action League and received high ratings from the National Rifle Association Victory Fund in 2008. In his 2010 election for U.S. Senate, the National Rifle Association backed him and cheered his victory, saying it represented a “stunning defeat for gun control extremists.”
“I’ve had a very strong and solid and reasonable position on guns and the right and ability to bear arms, so I’m not worried about my position,” Brown said several weeks ago. “I have time to look people in the eye and answer their questions straight up.”
Walt Morse, a former Hillsborough County sheriff whose family owns Morse Sporting Goods in Hillsboro, said both Brown and Rubens have come by the store to talk with voters. A longtime friend of Rubens, Morse decided to support him early on. He didn’t get a chance to talk with Brown extensively, but he said people seemed to be happy with what they heard from both candidates on their gun records.
“It’s going to be interesting. I hope that the people take time to listen to all the candidates,” Morse said.
Brad Marshall, owner of Marshalls Firearms in Boscawen, is a staunch Second Amendment supporter and doesn’t believe in banning certain guns. Rubens stopped by his store several weeks ago to talk with patrons. Marshall was working so he did not have much time to speak with him one-on-one, but he said he’s likely to support Rubens.
“It goes deeper than the Second Amendment,” Marshall said. “In a nutshell, he’s very much more conservative than Brown.”
If Brown does win the primary, Marshall said he’d still vote for him over Shaheen. But not all gun owners feel the same.
Kopacz, of Gun Owners of New Hampshire, said some pro-gun Republicans will stay home if Brown wins the primary. Some might even vote for Shaheen to send a message that New Hampshire Republicans don’t want national interests picking their candidates.
“When he first came up here, we were across the street protesting him,” Kopacz said, “saying, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ ”
Clarification: This story has been updated to make Brown’s vote on a state assault weapons ban more clear. As a state lawmaker in Massachusetts, Brown voted on an update to the law banning assault weapons which included provisions supported by gun groups.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309, email@example.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)