Joe Manchin: ‘What we did, we did right’

April 11, 2013

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.). ( AP)

The bipartisan deal brokered this week to expand the national gun background check system likely couldn't have happened without the work of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.), a moderate Democrat who from the start was eager to find a way to curb gun violence that also protected Second Amendment rights.

Manchin, who is the subject of a front-page Washington Post profile in Wednesday's editions, spoke with Ed O'Keefe and David A. Fahrenthold in his Washington office Tuesday afternoon, just hours after he announced the deal with Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.)

A transcript of the interview appears below, with slight edits for length and clarity:

Ed O’Keefe: It’s been a big day. How are you doing?

Manchin: “It’s funny. It’s taken so much work and this long of a time to come what seems to be such a sensible, rational position. It tells you how difficult things are in Washington. If nothing else, it’s basically shown me the challenge of this very challenging place.”

Ed O’Keefe: What else have you learned generally since you engaged on this issue?

Manchin: “I came here wanting to do something. I was a governor, as executives you know, every day we do something. And up here it’s a whole different mind-set and a different pace, and it’s hard for a lot of us to get in that, so it’s very frustrating.

“What I do is always try to keep my state in mind, of how I was raised, the people I know, the people that I know how they live their lives, and how they would like to have a support and a partnership in order to do it and to enjoy your life. So you try to represent them as true as you possibly can, and this was something that was commonsense. We don’t want criminals or people who’ve been adjudicated through mental court to have guns."

...

“This whole thing has gone through so many metamorphoses over the months: ‘What about this? Well, what about a private transfer? Well, if a private citizen comes and a private citizen wants to sell one gun shouldn’t that allow them to do that at a gun show?’

“And I said, ‘I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m not going to be involved in legislation that leaves any sliver of escape’ If we’re going to go to a gun show, then that should be defined as a commercial transaction. And if you’re going there, you’re going there for a purpose. If you buy a gun there, you should be expected to follow the law at the gun show. You know what’s expected when you go to the gun store or Wal-Marts.

“And that went through so many ups and downs and hills and valleys and everything else and I just said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t be involved. So I think that’s when some people dropped off and dropped on and whatever.”

David A. Fahrenthold: I was talking to somebody from the West Virginia Citizens Defense League, folks you talk to all the time. They were saying, ‘We know that he has to get involved in a lot of issues in Washington, and we know he knows he cares a lot about guns.’ Why pick this as your issue?

Manchin: “I didn’t pick it, basically I think it picked me. Here’s a person who comes from a gun culture, a gun state, superior ratings, lifetime member. Every chance I get I go hunting, I got out in the woods, I like to shoot skeet, I like to do it all. And here’s a person who’s an advocate and says, this makes sense, we have to do something.

“And if Newtown didn’t move ya – I just can’t imagine, I still, and I know it’s not the guns, it’s basically the person behind the gun. But how did we get ourselves into a society, how did we get to the point where babies -- truly babies going to school -- would not come home and couldn’t have an open casket?

“I just said, is there something? But people say, well, that wouldn’t have prevented anything. Okay, but maybe can we prevent something from happening that someone who shouldn’t get a gun can’t get a gun? That’s all I’m saying.”

“If I can prevent one person who shouldn’t have it because they were a criminal, or someone’s been adjudicated through a mental court system, then hopefully maybe we’ve done something. But to sit back and say it won’t make a difference. Well, how can I look a gun dealer in the eye and say, you’ve got to do this, this, this and this, but guess what? Go over here and you don’t have to do it at all. That didn’t make sense to me.

“I’ve been with the most ardent gun advocates in my state. And I’ve been on the phone with them, I know them. I’ve been meeting with them.”

Ed O’Keefe: And what are the gun owners telling you?

Manchin: “Well all along they said they wanted to see the language. Now that they’re seeing the language, they’re fine. They’re going to be fine. Now, the Defense League and Gun Owners of America, they just don’t want anything because they don’t trust anybody, they don’t like government, they’re afraid government’s going after them. If they’d just read the darn bill, we reinforce anti-registration. We put a stiffer penalty to it.

“But I can’t change some of those. There’s three categories of gun owners. The first category is a gun owner like myself, for the sporting of it, for the hunting, the enjoyment of it. The second one is people who buy for self-defense or [defense of] property or families, whatever. The third is those who are prepared against their government’s attack. They’re a small percentage, but so many people don’t trust. That’s what we’re dealing with.

“And I’ve just never been afraid of guilt by a conversation. I’ve never been afraid of that. I just think that basically I’ve been elected and people have put trust in me to be in a position to make decisions and to represent them. And if I don’t talk to all the people – they say, ‘Well you talked to [Sen. Charles E.] Schumer.’ Well, yes I did. And you know what? I found him to be extremely reasonable. I found to him to be able to move off a position and I told him ‘I could not support your bill, Chuck, I can’t vote for your bill.’ And he sat down from day one and worked with us. Clear from the left. Now that tells you responsibility and reasonability.

“Mark Kirk’s been with me from day one. I’ve talked to Tom Coburn, both of us coming from hard-core gun culture. Tom had a lot of input on really designing this. And then, when that fell away, I understand why Tom fell away regarding the gun shows. But I said, I just can’t do that, I can’t put my name on that.

“And then I thought, where do I go? I talked to a lot of other people.”

Ed O’Keefe: When did you come upon Pat Toomey?

Manchin: “Pat and I, we traveled together. We had to go back to Pittsburgh and do a conference together, he and I did an energy thing. We flew together, we talked a little bit, we just like each other. I like Pat, I feel comfortable with Pat. He knows that I’m conservative on fiscal matters, I might be different with him on some social matters. I’m a Democrat, he’s a Republican, but we’re both trying to represent our states best we can. And we respect each other, we’re not trying to embarrass or ‘gotcha and I’ll use this against you.’ I think he trust me and knows I’d never do that. And I trust him and know he wouldn’t do that.”

Ed O’Keefe: How many guns do you own?

Manchin: “I know four. Sometimes my son takes them. I think right now I have five guns that I really consider that I try to hold on to so my son or my grandson won’t take. So I’m buying them guns so they can keep their guns and leave my guns alone.”

[Editor’s Note: Manchin staffers later clarified that the senator uses four firearms regularly: An Over Under Shotgun, two semiautomatic shotguns and one bolt-action deer rifle.]

“It starts out -- we all back home, I just thought it was kind of a right of passage. You get your BB Gun at 8 or 9 at Christmas. I never shot an eye out, but we had a BB Gun fights. There wasn’t a streetlight safe in Farmington.

“A BB gun’s your first, and from there you go to a single-shot bolt-action 22, then you go to a 410, then you move up to a 20, 16, or 12-gauge. And I went right to the 12-gauge.”

Ed O’Keefe: I’ve heard you say a few times in recent weeks, ‘We’re trying to protect our culture,’ or, ‘We’re trying to make sure that people understand our culture.’ There will be many people  who read about this in Philadelphia, in Brooklyn or Chicago that think, wait a second, once again Congress has watered it down. Once again, Congress is going to let people get away with this. How do you explain the bill to them?

Manchin: “We’ve got right now, two senators -- myself and Pat Toomey -- we have two other senators that come from more of the left, even on the Republican side – Mark [Kirk] from [Illinois]. And Chuck. We’ve brought this whole cadre of people together with whole different backgrounds saying, this is a responsible, reasonable approach. Chuck’s going to say, ‘I’d like to have my bill.’ Chuck, I’m sorry, that’s not going to fly. We’ve got other people saying, ‘I don’t want anything. Everything’s just fine. You wouldn’t have protected a person, no kid would have survived.’

“I’m not so sure about that, but on the other hand, we know we have a flaw, so why don’t you fix it. This is not knee-jerk reaction. And I’m sure this is not the administration’s bill. I’m sure it’s not what they want. The vice president or the president. But I think all of them have to look at it and say, listen, are the gun show loopholes closed? Absolutely. Are Internet sales stopped from proliferating to a much larger degree? Absolutely. Did we create new law? No. we expanded on existing law. The things the NRA would love are in this bill. The things that they’ve identified that basically we never did right, which was the NICS system, which was the states not reporting, no penalties? All that’s been cured."

David A. Fahrenthold: Two years ago – Upper Big Branch, you were a governor. And we saw that ad where you shot a hole in the cap and trade bill. That was a time when you were an outsider, you were showing your distance from President Obama, you were showing your distaste for that particular bill [cap and trade]. How do you get to this point where you’re helping make a deal and on an issue as sensitive as gun violence?

Manchin: “Being a governor is the best job in the world.”

Ed O’Keefe: So then what’s this job?

Manchin: “I’m not going to say, I’m just telling you the facts. This one here takes a lot more patience and a lot more understanding, but it lets you see the world at a different elevation.

“I thought I could bring the accomplishments and the can-do attitude and bring that here and use that commonsense and commonsense values that I think we have in our state and it would be of help. I find myself in a position now, coming from a gun culture, being a person who really practices using my guns and hunting and enjoying all those things, of credibility. That if I tell a person, ‘Listen: They’re not going to take my guns and if you believe that I’m going sign on a piece of legislation that would let them take your guns, you’re sadly mistaken. You know better than that.’ I think I can say that with more credibility than other people who’ve put different committees together that don’t come from that same background.

“If I tell them, ‘Trust me, no way, shape or form are they going to be able to register on a federal registration and know that you’ve got a gun for the purpose’ -- that cannot happen. If not, we’ve reinforced it two times, put stiffer penalties and fines to this. I think when I say that, ‘I bet he did it, I know he did it.

“So I’m just saying that you find yourself where you have a little bit of expertise and hopefully a lot of credibility, and that the people that have always trusted you and believed in you know you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do. And that’s what I’m doing.

“Now you’re saying that on the left, Chuck’s people, I’m sure they’re going to say, ‘Hey, how come you didn’t do this?’ I’m not saying it’s perfect that that’s what you believe should have been done. I’m saying that what we did, we did right. And you have to look at that in the toxic atmosphere that we’re in, that I’ve experienced for two and half years. Oh Lordy, if we’re able to get this, I think, good piece of legislation through, it’ll be a major accomplishment."

Ed O’Keefe: We’d be remiss if we didn’t ask you what’s been going on aboard your boat, “The Black Tie.” Sen. Mark Kirk filled us in, saying that “Most of the bipartisan progress of this session of Congress will trace back to the Black Tie.” So what’s the deal?

Manchin: “What did you find out about that?”

Ed O’Keefe: He said that you’re a one-eighth owner of a vessel that sits in National Harbor.

Manchin: “No, I’m not one-eighth. I’m a wee little small owner and have a generous partner. But you know what, it’s an older boat, it’s nice, we have a lot of fun."

David A. Fahrenthold: Is it a yacht or pontoon?

Manchin: “No, it’s an older big boat. But we can get 10 or more senators and have a good time. And you know what? We can go float out there and you can’t find us.

“We go out on the Potomac. You build relationships. I’m doing everything I can to build relationships. I love to know my senator colleagues – Democrats and Republicans. Just trying to, I just know back home that’s what we do. Cheapest thing you can do is feed people.

Ed O’Keefe: Were any of the gun talks aboard The Black Tie?

Manchin: “We talk about everything. Everything. Everybody. You’d be surprised -- and Mark will tell you that. Mark and I just kept getting, we’ve been good friends since day one and we kept getting closer and closer and closer. And we’d say, ‘Let’s invite so-and-so, you invite so-and-so and I’ll invite so-and-so.’

“And you know, just beer, pizza, whatever, just have a good time. But it was a way to break the ice, it was a way that we look forward to getting together. The boat’s not here now, but if we get it back, we’ll use it again.

Ed O’Keefe: Since you’ve had such close consultations with the NRA, we’ve heard that there are some disagreements over how they should respond to all this.

Manchin: “I don’t know about that, let me just say this about the NRA: These are my friends, I’ve know them for a long time. I’ve worked with them and they know this door is open for them. I would have liked to see them not be in the position that they’re in right now where they can’t come out and say this is a good bill, because they know it is.

“They know that there’s things in this bill that really have clarified and protected a law-abiding gun owner to have their Second Amendment rights protected and clear up a lot of things. And I know that. I’ve been around too long, but because they’re put in a position from some other gun groups that have pushed them to where they can’t politically come out. I don’t know why.

“The only thing I’m asking my friends at the NRA if they would do this for me: Put the contents of mine and Pat Toomey’s amendment, put it online. Put it in your magazine. Let your NRA members, like myself, see what they think. And I think you might be surprised and you’ll see the support and hopefully that will allow them [to support it].

“Because these are the things they’ve asked for. They told me there’s been an injustice, basically the way some of these things have been handled, and I looked at them and they were right. They told me that states weren’t doing the jobs of reporting their adjudicated criminals and mentally ill. And they’re right. And we fixed every damn thing. But they’re pushed politically – which I wished they weren’t pushed. And I would hope that they can maybe see the light."

"We worked for a long time and I guess if it goes down, we’ll just have to respectfully disagree and still just respect each other. I would pray to the good Lord that they’re never going to have another chance I think to have a lot of corrections that they have in this bill.”

Read the full profile of Manchin and share thoughts in the comments section below.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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