Jeff Flake’s Rhetorical Games On Background Checks Come Back To Haunt Him

April 22, 2013 1:10 p.m.

Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) obfuscatory stance on background checks came back to haunt him Monday after the New York Daily News unearthed a letter he sent to the mother of a shooting victim, vowing to support stronger background checks before he voted against them.

In a handwritten note to Caren Teves, whose son Alex died trying to protect his girlfriend during the Aurora, Colo. theater shooting, Flake said he was “truly sorry” for her loss and vowed that “strengthening background checks is something we agree on.” His letter was a follow-up response after he and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) were criticized for initially sending rote form letters to the mother in response to her grievances.

Last Wednesday, Flake joined a minority of senators in voting to block the Manchin-Toomey legislation to require background checks for firearm purchases at gun shows and over the Internet — a policy supported by 90 percent of Americans, according to polls. The legislation failed as a filibuster threat forced a 60-vote threshold for passage.The Daily News report was picked up by the Huffington Post, The Atlantic Wire and ThinkProgress, among others, with the brutal implication that he flat-out lied to a mother of a murdered child about his support for a policy that may prevent future deaths.

His remarks were indeed misleading and suggested that he was prepared to support the background check legislation. But there’s more to it — Flake was using coded language to obscure what has been his policy position throughout the debate: he has consistently opposed expanding mandatory background checks to additional gun sales while supporting overhauling the FBI criminal check system to include more information on mental health.

Flake announced before the Manchin-Toomey vote that he would oppose the bill. He instead cosponsored legislation with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), backed by the National Rifle Association, to streamline the existing background check system but not expand mandatory checks. The measure was folded into a substitute bill by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Flake voted for it during the amendment process.

“While Senator Flake has never supported universal background checks, he has long supported strengthening our background checks system by making sure mental health records are more efficiently integrated into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System,” Flake spokeswoman Genevieve Rozansky told TPM in an email on Monday afternoon.

Flake’s approach demonstrates the pitfalls of deploying confusing rhetoric to justify opposition to a popular policy. Other senators were more forthcoming in opposing background checks.

Here’s the note from Flake to Teves, via the New York Daily News.

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