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Republicans sing new tune on background checks

Nearly three weeks after Republican-led efforts stymied a bipartisan deal on new federal gun control legislation, the stalled reform could have new life as some
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012

Nearly three weeks after Republican-led efforts stymied a bipartisan deal on new federal gun control legislation, the stalled reform could have new life as some GOP senators consider taking new positions in the wake of extraordinary backlash for their no-votes.

Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who voted against the gun package, says he’d be willing to support expanded background checks—a key provision of the bill that was a sticking point for pro-gun lawmakers—if tweaked.

Flake told CNN that he’d be willing to reverse his opposition to the background check provision if the Senate’s bill excluded checks for internet gun sales.

Requiring background checks for internet sales is inconvenient and costly, particularly for the casual nature that guns are often sold among friends in rural parts, Flake said.

The way the measure is currently written, Flake said a gun owner who sends a friend a text message or email to gauge interest in buying a gun, or extends an offer via social media, “that is considered a commercial sale.”

Flake had previously written on Facebook that his no vote on background checks had dropped his poll number below "pond scum."

After a weeklong recess, Congress is back in Washington and gun control advocates are back on the grind trying to lure over the five yes-votes needed to revive the since-ditched expanded background checks provision.

“The legislation got 55 votes, it needed 60. So it didn’t pass that time but six A-rated NRA senators voted for the legislation,” Brian Malte, director of policy and advocacy for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told msnbc.  “We are pushing on these last five votes to have that bill come up again. We’re looking like crazy to do it. People are counting us out, but the anger and the outrage over the votes have spurred people to action. We’re not giving up.”

Among likely targets for gun control advocates are Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Democratic Rep. Max Baucus of Montana, both of whom have faced backlash for their votes against the bill. Amid harsh criticism and plunging poll numbers, Ayotte now says that she supports background checks.

"Out-of-state special interests are running false ads attacking me and even lying about my efforts to prevent gun-related violence," Ayotte said in an op-ed Monday."I want to set the record straight: I support effective background checks and in fact voted recently to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)."

While Ayotte voted against the so-called Manchin-Toomey amendment, she supported a Republican-sponsored background check bill that did not  include universal checks for gun shows or internet sales, but asked that states submit mental health information to the background check database.

“Some of my colleagues want to expand the broken background check system we have now,” Ayotte wrote in her op-ed. “In my view, we shouldn’t be expanding a flawed system. The focus should be on fixing the existing system, which criminals are flouting.”

Ayotte, the only Northeastern senator to vote against the background check bill, has recently come under fire in her home district and in a new television ad produced by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the anti-gun violence organization founded by New York City’s billionaire Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

During a town hall-style meeting last week, constituents in Ayotte’s home district became agitated and shouted out angrily at the first-term senator.

Among those in attendance that day last month was Erica Lafferty, whose mother was shot and killed during the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 schoolchildren and six teachers were killed.

“I’m just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the halls of her elementary school isn’t as important?” Lafferty asked Ayotte.

The senator said “I’m so sorry,” but in that moment and in the coming days defended her position against the broad application of background checks during gun sales, telling Lafferty that “As you and I both know, the issue wasn’t a background check system issue in Sandy Hook. Mental health, I hope, is the one thing we can agree on going forward.”

Not long after Ayotte’s op-ed was published, Mayors Against Illegal Guns launched a new ad lambasting her for voting against the Manchin-Toomey amendment.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told the Los Vegas Review Journal that the he believed the pressure building against Ayotte might make her vulnerable to be drawn over in support of a resurrected background check bill.

"Joe Manchin called me yesterday," Reid said. "He thinks he has a couple more votes. The one senator, Republican Senator from New Hampshire [Kelly Ayotte], has been —wham, man has she been hit hard. She's the only senator in the northeast to vote against background checks. She went from a hugely positive number in New Hampshire —her negatives now outweigh her positives. She is being hit every place she goes. So we are going to pick up some more votes. I may be able to get another Democrat or two. That would get us up to 57. We may only need three additional Republicans. So we'll see."

Baucus, a six-term Montana Democrat and one of four Democrats who voted against the background check amendment then swiftly announced his retirement from Congress, has been the center of a firestorm stirred up by opponents and proponents of the provision.

Groups have flooded Montana with television and print ads supporting and decrying his no-vote.

In one of the ads, released by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal pro-gun control group, features a gun-owning Montana woman named Clarie Kelly urging Baucus to change his vote.

“Senator Baucus, now that you’re retiring, please put Montana first,” the woman said in the ad, citing a poll that shows 79% of Montanans support background checks.

A full-page ad that ran in 20 Montana newspapers took a more direct tone, blasting Baucus's vote, saying, "Senator, Baucus, it was WRONG to vote 'no' on stopping gun violence."

The National Rifle Association also chimed in, releasing a full-page ad of its own in Montana newspapers. "You're freedom is under attack...but Senator Max Baucus is fighting back," the ad reads. "Call Senator Baucus. Thank him for putting Montanans first."

Baucus has an A+ rating from the NRA.

"The whole thing hinges on one guy now," a Democratic operative recently told Buzzfeed. "If you want background checks, lock on to Max Baucus and do not let go."

The simmering debate over guns and American’s access to them heats up as a Justice Department report released this morning says that while gun violence has plummeted nationwide over the past 20 years, guns are still used in the vast majority of homicides.

According to the report, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, gun-homicides declined by 39% between 1993 and 2011. But the steep decline is juxtaposed by a statistic that is equally stark: In 2011, a firearm was used in about 70% of all homicides. And most of the time a handgun was used.

Meanwhile, one of the more prominent gun violence victims to have weighed heavily into the gun control debate is former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, a Democrat who has reportedly been lobbying her friend and Arizona state colleague Sen. Flake to switch his vote against background checks.

The day after Flake cast his vote against the measure, Mark Kelly, Giffords husband, took to Twitter to chide him.

“heard u say on FOX “I think all of us want to keep guns out of the hand of criminals & those with mental illness. We can do it.” Kelly tweeted. “I’m confused, friend. You had that chance yesterday. Want to rethink and join me and Gabby in making Arizona safer?”