Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Flake's Background-Check Problem

Posted By on Tue, May 14, 2013 at 1:30 PM

Sen. Jeff Flake’s name popped back up in the national news last week as someone who might potentially flip on the question of expanding background checks to gun shows, Internet transactions and other advertised sales.

Both CNN and the Associated Press had stories that suggested Flake was considering voting for legislation similar to the Manchin-Toomey amendment that he helped kill via filibuster in April.

Supporters of the legislation need at least five U.S. senators to flip on the question of expanding background check on gun sales that don’t go through a federally licensed firearms dealer.

Flake’s name comes up when supporters of background-check legislation talk about trying to resurrect their proposal.

The chatter is partly because Flake is close to Gabby Giffords, who has been lobbying hard for the expansion of background checks; partly because supporters of the legislation have kept pressure on Flake by protesting outside his offices; and partly because the Arizona Republican saw his approval numbers (as surveyed by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling) take a dive in the wake of the vote, with 51 percent of 600 Arizona voters surveyed disapproving of Flake’s job performance and just 32 percent saying they approved of the job he was doing.

The same poll showed 70 percent of Arizonans supported the idea of “requiring background checks for all gun sales, including gun shows and the Internet.”

Flake has given the appearance of being open to the legislation; in a handwritten letter to the mother of a victim of the Colorado movie theater massacre that was delivered before the vote on the Manchin-Toomey amendment, Flake said “strengthening background checks is something we agree on.”

And CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash came away from an interview last week reporting:


Republican Sen. Jeff Flake told CNN he is willing to reverse his opposition to expanding background checks for guns if the Senate bill's sponsors change a provision dealing with internet sales.

Flake said the only reason he voted no was because of his concern that the requirement for background checks on internet sales is too costly and inconvenient, given the way guns are often sold among friends in his state of Arizona and others.

He said under the measure as written, if a gun owner sends a few friends a text or email asking if they want to buy their gun, or posts it on their Facebook page, "that is considered a commercial sale."

For people in rural areas in his state and others, he said that becomes inconvenient and costly.

Flake admitted that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, the measure's chief sponsor who is trying to revive it after a devastating Senate defeat last month, may not be able to change the language in a way that satisfies him. But Flake insists he hopes they can figure it out.


Shortly after that CNN report appeared, however, Team Flake said the senator was sticking with his support for alternative legislation that changed reporting requirements regarding the mentally ill.

Flake spokeswoman Genevieve Rozansky told The Range that the CNN report “didn’t address the many concerns Senator Flake had with the Manchin-Toomey amendment—his concerns with Manchin-Toomey go beyond the internet provision. Senator Flake voted for the Grassley amendment, which included his legislation strengthening existing background checks with regard to the mentally ill.”

In various interviews, Flake has said he opposed the Manchin-Toomey amendment because it created too much paperwork for average folks who wanted to sell second-hand guns and that people would have been required to do background checks if they did so much as text a friend or send a Facebook message during a gun sale.

Without a transcript, it’s tough to say exactly what was said in Flake’s interview with CNN to give the news organization the impression that he was open to changing his mind on Manchin-Toomey. (And it’s not like CNN gets everything right.)

But Flake does tend to leave people who lobby for additional gun regulations with the impression that he’s open to compromise. Pam Simon, the former Giffords congressional aide who was shot twice in the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting rampage in at Giffords’ Congress on Your Corner event that left six dead and 13 wounded, has lobbied Flake on expanding background checks.

“He is smiling and charming and you’re never quite sure which way he’s going to lean,” Simon says.

Greg Sargent at the Washington Post has this take on Flake's position:


Flake has repeatedly said he supports strengthening background checks, in the sense that he backs the idea of improving mental health records within the current system, as opposed to expanding it. Kelly Ayotte — who also voted against Manchin-Toomey — has also been claiming the same thing. While improving mental health records is a desirable goal in and of itself, Republicans continue to embrace this route because they are trying to look reasonable when it comes to background checks — without supporting any expansion of them that the NRA won’t accept.

In reality, we can improve and expand the law simultaneously. These things are not mutually exclusive.

The positive thing here is that these Republicans really are working hard to explain their vote for Manchin-Toomey. They aren’t saying unapologetically that Goddammit, they voted to “defend the Second Amendment” and all you liberals can just suck on it. Instead, they are claiming that they support the general goal of background checks but just had this or that policy objection to Manchin-Toomey in particular. This alone is a sign that they may be on the defensive, at least to some degree, and are feeling at least some heat over their vote.

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