Over the last few months, I've thought a lot about political courage.
I saw some courage in Congress during the effort to pass a common sense expansion of background checks — but not enough. I was proud of senators like Susan Collins of Maine, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who know that gun rights and gun safety go hand in hand and voted to keep us all safer. I was proud of almost all your New England senators, who listened to their constituents, and put safety over the big money of the gun lobby. But like so many Granite Staters, 89 percent of whom support expanded background checks, I was disappointed with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who did not listen to her constituents and who alone in New England voted in lockstep with the NRA.
But this fight isn't over. Keeping us safe from gun violence is a long, hard haul, just like my recovery. In the future — soon, I hope — Sen. Ayotte will have the opportunity to vote again on common sense solutions to reduce gun violence. I know this issue is important to her, and if the original version of the bill wasn't good enough for her, I have great optimism that she could work with her colleagues to craft an even better bill.
I served in elected office for a decade, in the Arizona state legislature and the U.S. Congress. When I voted for health care reform, which was not at all popular among my constituents, I got a lot of angry calls about my vote for health care. I listened. I felt it was our best option to reverse a years-in-the-making crisis of health care costs and affordability. The calls and letters helped me to understand how we could make the law better and where we needed to communicate better about the bill. But I knew that those calls weren't necessarily an accurate reflection of what all my constituents felt, any more than they accurately represented the policy itself. Often, those calls are a barometer of how angry or exuberant the most extreme voices on both sides are. That's not a measure of the true opinion of your constituency.
I voted against a popular program, Cash for Clunkers, because while I wanted to support the auto industry, I could not support the way our taxpayer dollars were spent. I agreed with the goal, but didn't think the policy would achieve the goal.
I heard Sen. Ayotte, at her town hall last week, tell the daughter of murdered Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung that she felt she could vote against the background checks bill because expanded background checks might not have prevented the Newtown shooting. But that's not the goal the policy was trying to solve.
We know we can't say it would have prevented Newtown, or Tucson for that matter. But expanding background checks will prevent criminals and mentally ill people from getting guns; and in those instances, it will save lives in the future. That's the goal. If Sen. Ayotte didn't know that, she didn't pay enough attention to the policy.
I don't believe that political courage means voting lockstep with public opinion. Sometimes, if the evidence isn't there, you take a tough vote that you have to help the public come to understand. But let's be very clear: Political courage also isn't defined by voting against public opinion for the wrong reasons.
President Kennedy wrote, in "Profiles in Courage,'' "the stories of past courage ... can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul."
I can't tell you why Sen. Ayotte voted against this common sense measure. Sen. Ayotte is a former attorney general, so she must know that expanding background checks will keep guns out of the hands of many dangerous people and will prevent crimes. And she's a parent, so she must know how it feels to fear for your child's safety.
Granite Staters have reason to be angry with her. They see that the policy is there — the facts are not in dispute. And they know they and their neighbors all support the policy, overwhelmingly. So they're left to wonder: What guided Kelly Ayotte's decision if not facts and not popular support?
Ayotte can assuage their worst fears by looking into her own soul, as President Kennedy advised. She can draw on what she knows about public safety and preventing crime and what she feels as a parent. I feel confident she can find the courage there to vote for common sense solutions in the future. And if she does, I'll be so proud to stand with her.