CNN made a splash earlier today by reporting that GOP Senator Jeff Flake may be prepared to switch to Yes on Manchin-Toomey if its sponsors agree to change the provision relating to internet sales. If that happened, that would obviously be a big boost to the prospects of revisiting the bill.

However, after talking to Flake’s office, I’m not convinced he’s anywhere near switching his vote, though in one sense his office’s response does suggest progress of a narrow kind. Asked for a detailed explanation of his position, Flake spokesperson Genevieve Rozansky emailed me this:

He opposed Manchin-Toomey because it would have expanded background checks far beyond commercial sales to include most private transfers – including between friends and neighbors – if the posting or display of the ad for a firearm was made public in any way. He believes that the language in Manchin-Toomey regarding commercial sales was too broad, which is one of the reasons he didn’t support the amendment.

She added that he objected to Manchin-Toomey because “it placed undue burdens on all firearms dealers, including smaller retailers” and “would have increased dealers’ liability, record keeping requirements, and expenses leading to high transfer fees on buyers and sellers.”

Taken all together, this is a good deal to overcome. Manchin-Toomey only requires checks on private sales done via commercial portals — at gun shows or on the Internet. But Flake thinks that the measure could end up requiring checks on certain types of internet transfers among friends and neighbors. Whether that’s true or not, it could probably be addressed with a legislative tweak. But Flake also sees “undue burdens” on dealers and onerous “expenses” on buyers and sellers, which would be much harder to fix with a tweak.

The bottom line is that if Republicans are not willing to support any kind of additional burden on buyers and sellers in service of expanding background checks, they won’t be able to support real action to fix the loophole in the law. Period.

Flake has repeatedly said he supports strengthening background checks, in the sense that he backs the idea of improving mental health records within the current system, as opposed to expanding it. Kelly Ayotte — who also voted against Manchin-Toomey — has also been claiming the same thing. While improving mental health records is a desirable goal in and of itself, Republicans continue to embrace this route because they are trying to look reasonable when it comes to background checks — without supporting any expansion of them that the NRA won’t accept.

In reality, we can improve and expand the law simultaneously. These things are not mutually exclusive.

The positive thing here is that these Republicans really are working hard to explain their vote for Manchin-Toomey. They aren’t saying unapologetically that Goddammit, they voted to “defend the Second Amendment” and all you liberals can just suck on it. Instead, they are claiming that they support the general goal of background checks but just had this or that policy objection to Manchin-Toomey in particular. This alone is a sign that they may be on the defensive, at least to some degree, and are feeling at least some heat over their vote.

Whether or not this will ultimately result in another vote on Manchin-Toomey is an open question — that still looks a long way off right now. But few Dems would have predicted that the gun control forces would have been able to kick up enough noise that some Republicans would be continuing to try to justify their position this long after the vote. That’s a good thing, and hopefully it will encourage gun reformers to keep up the pressure.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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