PHOENIX — With gun control activists in Arizona vowing to remove him from
office, Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake said Friday he wants Congress to expand
background checks for firearm buyers, despite his recent vote against the
Senate’s bipartisan plan.
The so-called Manchin-Toomey measure voted down by Flake and others in the
Senate Wednesday was too broad, but a streamlined version should win Congress’
support, Flake said. His remarks Friday were designed to pacify gun control
advocates who have demanded an apology from Flake after the popular gun control
measure backed by President Barack Obama and voters was stalled in the Senate.
Proponents said it will be harder to advance the gun control drive as more time
lapses between December’s killing of children and staff at an elementary school
in Newtown, Conn., but Flake said he remains optimistic.
“I hope this debate isn’t over. I hope we can continue,” Flake said in a
phone interview Friday. “We do need to take measures to make this situation
better and we can do so in a way that is consistent with the Second Amendment.”
Gun violence victims said they were not impressed with Flake’s political
posturing, and accused him of trying to appease voters from both sides of the
gun control debate without risking retribution from the National Rifle
Association, the powerful pro-Second Amendment organization that opposed the
More than 50 anti-gun activists rallied outside Flake’s Senate office in
Phoenix Friday morning chanting “Shame on Flake.” They adorned the lawn
outside his office with dozens of balloons featuring the phrase “R.I.P” and
the names of gun violence victims.
Caren Teves, whose son was killed last summer in a mass shooting at a Colorado
movie theater, said she invited Flake to dinner to sit in her son’s empty chair.
He replied with a hand-written note praising her activism. Teves said the
gesture would do nothing to prevent more mass shootings.
“To me, it’s words, not actions,” she said. “He’s using political speech to
avoid doing what’s right.”
Jennifer Longdon said Flake should have drafted his own gun control bill if he
didn’t find the Manchin-Toomey measure acceptable. Longdon, who relies on a
wheelchair to get around after she was paralyzed in a Phoenix shooting, said
Flake was “parsing words.”
Flake said he didn’t support the legislation because it would have affected
some private gun transfers between friends and neighbors. The proposal fell
short of the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate. An attempt to ban
assault-style rifles failed as well, along with a ban on high-capacity
ammunition magazines. Arizona’s other U.S. senator, Republican John McCain,
supported the gun control overhaul.
“My position has been the same. I favor measures to strengthen our background
checks, particularly as it regards people with mental illness,” Flake said.
“Although the intent, I believe, was just to take care of commercial sales and
not involve private sales, it went deep into private sales.”
Flake said victims of gun violence have brought a much-needed sense of urgency
to the gun control debate, but he acknowledged that he has disappointed them,
including close friend former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely
wounded in a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson. Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly,
had lobbied Flake and other Republicans to pass the gun control measure and
Kelly indicated this week that he would work to remove Flake from office if he
continued to vote against expanded background checks.
“I don’t take offense. I admire them and I respect them for their strong views
on these issues,” Flake said. “I am glad they have been in Washington.”
In the weeks leading up to the vote, supporters of the gun restrictions held
rallies at Flake’s office to pressure him to back the effort. Giffords and
other gun control proponents also ran TV spots in Arizona to drive public
support for the bill.
Flake stopped short of offering gun violence victims an apology on Friday.
“I was very glad to see the victims of a number of the tragedies we’ve seen –
Tucson, Aurora, Newtown – I visited with many of them. It was helpful to have
them there. I am glad they were because they help bring a sense of urgency,” he
Gerry Hills, a Republican and founder of Arizonans for Gun Safety, said she had
campaigned for Flake in the past, but would no longer support him unless he
voted for gun control. She said she did not find Flake’s praise for gun control
“This is a guy trying to backpedal from his vote on Wednesday,” she said.
Giffords wrote of her anger in an opinion piece in The New York Times after the
vote: “Speaking is physically difficult for me. But my feelings are clear: I’m
furious. I will not rest until we have righted the wrong these senators have