Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) seems to be in a little trouble this week, and it's a problem of his own making. He told Caren Teves, whose son was killed in the Aurora slayings, that he supports "strengthening" background checks, only to turn around and vote against the bipartisan Manchin/Toomey measure last week. It's led to headlines like these: "Flake Voted Against Background Checks After Telling Shooting Victim's Mother He Supported Them."
It might seem like a relatively straightforward question: either he lied or he didn't. Flake's hand-written note is a little tough to read, but after receiving a dinner invitation from Teves, the Republican said he was "truly sorry for your deep loss," adding, "While we may not agree on every solution, strengthening background checks is something we can agree on."
When Flake then voted against background checks, Teves felt betrayed. "What he did was to go against his own words and vote no against comprehensive background checks ... I believe he's a coward," she said.
The whole story is more complicated than it should be. Indeed, Flake's note to Teves wasn't the first time this has come up -- in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, Flake said on camera there's bipartisan support for "more effective and broader" background checks when it comes to firearm purchases. Soon after, Flake said expanded background checks are "a bridge too far" for him and Republican colleagues.
Is the Arizonan just a craven flip-flopper? Not exactly. As we talked about a few weeks ago, 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.
As Sahil Kapur explained:
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.
If this seems like little more than an annoying semantics point, that's because it is.
What Flake has endorsed is strengthening background checks, not expanding them. For normal people who speak the same language, when Flake assured a grieving mother that "strengthening background checks is something we can agree on," he was effectively promising to support measures like Manchin/Toomey. For Republicans, however, Flake was making no such promise.
It's a rhetorical game used by Republicans to sound more mainstream. Americans are supposed to hear Republicans express support for "strengthened" background checks, and think to themselves, "Well, maybe they're not so extreme after all -- the left and right appear to agree on this."
Alas, that's just not the case.