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The Rhetorical Games Conservatives Are Playing On Guns

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"Absolutely, I'm open to expanding background checks," Asa Hutchinson, a former government official now working for the National Rifle Association, told CNN on Tuesday. Many believed Hutchinson was breaking from the NRA's opposition to expanding the reach of criminal background checks. As it turns out, he wasn't.

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.

Hutchinson clarified that he was referring to the latter. "He meant expanding it to include more people into the national instant check system," an NRA spokesman told CNN. "And by number of people, this is in reference to the quality of information within NICS."

A more revealing example of this rhetorical game-playing comes via Sen. Jeff Flake's (R-AZ) spokeswoman Genevieve Rozansky, in response to a query from TPM on whether the senator still supports background checks as he publicly said he did after the Newtown, Conn., shootings.

"Senator Flake has consistently opposed universal background checks," Rozansky wrote in an email. "He believes in stronger background checks, such as making sure mental health records are more efficiently integrated into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System."

Got that? In the same breath, Flake both opposes and supports background checks. What Flake actually supports is the NRA-backed policy of enhanced mental health reporting in existing background checks -- not closing loopholes for people to avoid gun checks.

Flake has cosponsored legislation to that effect, with NRA-friendly Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Mark Begich (D-AK), all three of whom are up for reelection in 2014. It allows these senators to say they support "background checks" without doing anything to upset the powerful gun industry lobby.

Other red state Democrats up for reelection in 2014, such as Sen. Kay Hagan (NC), are similarly caught between the NRA and a policy supported by nine of 10 Americans. Most say they're open to background checks but it's not clear in what form. They're leaving open an escape hatch to oppose the more robust policy to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

The distinction is important but easy to obfuscate -- a clever way of appearing to side with 90 percent of the public while actually, or potentially, siding with the NRA.

About The Author

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Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.