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Call for new gun limits doesn’t resonate in N.H.

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Senator Ted Cruz spoke in front of a gun range in Hudson, N.H., on Jan. 12.
Senator Ted Cruz spoke in front of a gun range in Hudson, N.H., on Jan. 12.(Keith Bedford)

HUDSON, N.H. — Senator Ted Cruz shooed two antigun protesters off the stage outside an indoor firing range and then told the cheering crowd he had just been inside target shooting.

Cruz warned the crowd that President Obama wants to "strip away the Second Amendment rights of millions of law-abiding citizens," prompting boos from the audience.

In New Hampshire, where polls show approximately two in five voters live in gun-owning households, Obama's call on Jan. 5 for tighter controls on guns is bringing a decidedly mixed response among voters and among presidential candidates facing off in the upcoming primary.

On Sunday, Democrat Hillary Clinton and rival Bernie Sanders sparred over gun policy, with Clinton saying Sanders had cast votes "with the gun lobby," and Sanders responding that the National Rifle Association had actually given him a low rating. Among Republicans, Cruz and other GOP candidates have repeatedly criticized Obama's call for tighter gun control as they play to conservative voters.

A day after Obama announced his proposal this month, the state House passed a measure permitting carriage of a concealed firearm without a license, similar to a bill that passed both state chambers last year. Governor Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, vetoed last year's bill.

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The concealed firearm measure is one more sign that voters in the strongly libertarian state have a nuanced take on gun control.

"Obama took it too far," said Matt Kelley, 43, of Sandwich, N.H., who works in advertising and plans to vote Republican, calling an executive order "the wrong way to go about it" during a recent weekday afternoon.

But he said he agreed with "small pieces" of Obama's plan such as expanded background checks. He said "no one needs an automatic rifle" and supports age requirements for gun ownership.

In interviews, several residents showed they do not necessarily have a problem with the president's measures but rather his decision to use unilateral executive action to tighten gun policies. Obama used executive action to circumvent Congress, which has rejected his calls for increased gun control in recent years.

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The scene outside the Granite State Indoor Range, where Cruz boasted of his time shooting, presented a stark contrast to Obama's East Room press conference this month when, flanked by relatives of people killed in mass shootings, he unveiled a raft of new gun control measures. Wiping tears from his face, Obama announced what gun control advocates called the most consequential federal policy changes in two decades.

Republican candidates, eager to prove to their conservative primary electorate how disdainful they are of the president, slammed the move as antigun and an unconstitutional use of executive power. Democratic candidates, compelled to prove their liberal bona fides in their own primary, have jockeyed to offer Obama the most praise.

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has come under criticism from other Republicans for having switched from gun control advocate to Second Amendment defender.

During Thursday night's Republican debate, after Senator Marco Rubio of Florida ripped his record, Christie responded, "If you look at my record as governor of New Jersey, I have vetoed a .50-caliber rifle ban. I have vetoed a reduction in clip size. I have vetoed a statewide ID system for gun owners, and I have pardoned six, six out-of-state folks who came through our state and were arrested for owning a gun legally in another state, so they never had to face charges."

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In the Democratic Party, as Sanders has increased his lead over Clinton in New Hampshire polls, her campaign has stepped up its criticism of Sanders' 2005 vote to immunize gun manufacturers from prosecution. The same year, Sanders voted to oppose immunity for other manufacturers.

"I have made it clear based on Senator Sanders' own record that he has voted with the NRA, with the gun lobby numerous times," Clinton said during Sunday's Democratic debate in South Carolina. "He voted against the Brady Bill five times. He voted for what we call the 'Charleston loophole.' He voted for immunity from gunmakers and sellers, which the NRA said 'was the most important piece of gun legislation in 20 years.' "

Sanders has cited his home state of Vermont as the rationale for his votes. A state with a low violent crime rate, Vermont has never required gun permits or registration or, gun rights advocates say, any serious curtailment of Second Amendment rights of any kind. In fact, gun rights activists around the country frequently cite Vermont as proof that fewer gun control measures leads to few incidences of violent crime.

In New Hampshire, polling data shows the rate of gun ownership has remained fairly consistent over the last decade, even amid demographic changes, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

But, Smith said, gun control policy consistently appears not to play a major role in influencing how voters there decide on a candidate.

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"We've been asking in general election campaigns and primary campaigns about the importance of various issues, and gun control is always way down at the bottom, low single digits," Smith said.

In his 2008 campaign, Obama supported more stringent control of firearms. But even with the mounting toll of mass shootings, he has been unable to convince Congress to pass such laws. In his State of the Union address Tuesday, guns earned a single, brief mention.

Nationally, the changes Obama unveiled appear popular at first blush. A CNN/ORC poll released last week found 67 percent of adults said they favor the changes, while 32 percent oppose them. Fifty-seven percent of gun owners back the measures, according to the poll.

Richard Chretien has a permit to carry a concealed weapon and said he supports Obama's initiative. When the 73-year-old retired chauffeur from Manchester goes to gun shows, he said, he is taken aback by some of the people he sees trying to buy guns. "I have a gun, I'm a hunter, I go for gun control. I'm very pleased," Chretien said of the new policies.

Beth Doherty, 48, a sales manager who lives in Londonderry, said she will vote for a Republican next month and opposes Obama's use of executive action. But she said she agrees with some of the ideas, particularly after recent mass shootings. "I think he's on the right page," she said. "I'm a realist and a mom."

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She said in particular she liked a greater emphasis on so-called smart gun technology. "The Second Amendment needs to catch up to the 21st century."


Jim O'Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JOSreports. Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sarah.schweitzer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahSchweitzer.