In the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said there's bipartisan support for "more effective and broader" background checks when it comes to firearm purchases. And yet, over the weekend, Flake said expanded background checks are "a bridge too far" for Senate Republicans.
Yesterday, Asa Hutchinson who led the NRA's task force on school violence, said on national television he's "absolutely ... open to expanding background checks." Soon after, the NRA said Hutchinson wasn't really talking about background checks.
What's behind shifts like these? The problem is not that conservatives are lying, at least not in this specific case, but rather that conservatives have a rather specific definition of "background checks" that doesn't quite line up with what everyone else is talking about. Sahil Kapur explained this morning:
There's a critical distinction to be made between universal background checks, a robust policy that would require criminal checks for virtually all gun purchases -- and a more milquetoast proposal to beef up mental health information in existing databases. The former is championed by gun control advocates and experts who say it would have a significant impact. The latter is supported by the NRA and does nothing to make it harder for criminals to buy firearms at private sales or gun shows, where background checks are not required by law.
It's obviously an important clarification. The right is generally comfortable with improving the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, by integrating mental health records, for example. When we hear conservatives endorse stronger "background checks," this is what they're talking about.
But what the right doesn't want to do is close existing loopholes. Republicans continue to support a system in which someone can go to a gun store, fail a background check, then go to a gun show and buy a military-style assault weapon without any background check at all.
When Americans see folks on the far-right say they're "absolutely open to expanding background checks," they might think to themselves, "Well, that nice man from the NRA doesn't sound so radical after all -- the left and right appear to agree on this." But that's only because "expanded background checks" has apparently become an amorphous phrase with competing meanings.
I should note, by the way, that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) endorsed background checks 13 years ago, he was pushing the same message Democrats are arguing now. His shift isn't the result of ambiguous rhetoric, but rather, the radicalization of his party.
Regardless, how can news consumers -- and media professionals, for that matter -- avoid getting confused by misleading rhetoric? Look for answers to two questions: (1) does the policymaker support universal background checks? (2) does the policymaker want to end the gun-show loophole?