I reported earlier today that Senator Joe Manchin’s office won’t say whether he is open to legislative action to achieve universal background checks. Boy was I wrong. It turns out that Manchin — who has a sterling “gun rights” reputation and an “A” rating from the NRA — is not only open to them, he’s already working on a proposal to make it happen.

Manchin voiced his support for universal background checks (with narrow exceptions) this morning in an interview with a West Virginia radio station. This represents real movement in the right direction. On Metro News radio’s Talkline, Manchin said he wasn’t ready to support the assault weapons ban, but then had this exchange with his interviewer:

MANCHIN: The first logical step would be, can’t you get the background checks, and get the information? Can’t we make sure that someone who has been violent but has mental illness is able for us to track? That person shouldn’t get a gun.
QUESTION: Do you think there should be universal background checks on anybody who wants to buy a gun? Right now it’s done only through federally licensed firearms dealers.
MANCHIN: I’m working on a bill right now with other Senators — Democrats and Reupblicans — we’re trying to get it, and looking at a background check that basically says that if you’re going to be a gun owner, you should be able to pass a background check, to be able to get that. With exceptions. The exceptions are: Families, immediate family members, some sporting events that you’re going to — that if you’re just going to be using them at the sporting events. So we’re looking and talking to people with expertise. I’m working with the NRA, to be honest with you, and talking to them. […]
QUESTION: So you think that if you go to a gun show … and there’s a private dealer there, not a federally licensed firearms dealer, but a private dealer, and you buy a gun from that private dealer, that you should have to undergo a background check?
MANCHIN: I think that’s common sense. Why would a legitimate gun retail shop have to go through that, but then the unfair advantage for someone at a gun show doesn’t?

This is a significant step forward. For one thing, Manchin explicitly endorsed new legislative action to achieve background checks on pretty much anyone who wants to get a gun, with narrow exceptions. He also endorsed closing the gun show loophole. Given Manchin’s “gun rights” credibility, this should give cover to all of the other red states Democrats who are skittish about embracing this common sense step. It’s hard to see why they’d hold out against supporting this, now that Manchin has made it politically safer.

Manchin’s claim that he is discussing this with the NRA is also interesting. It dovetails with recent comments by Dem Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a staunch gun control advocate, who said private talks with the NRA had indicated an openness to give ground on background checks, with exceptions similar to those described by Manchin. Coming from Manchin, of course, this is far more significant.

To repeat this one more time, commentators and news orgs are prematurely writing the obituary for Obama’s gun package based solely on the fact that the assault weapons ban faces an uphill struggle in Congress. It undoubtedly does. But the assault ban is not the centerpiece of Obama’s proposal; improving the background check system is. If Obama gets just the latter and some other provisions — minus the assault ban — it is still a major achievement. We now have Manchin on board, and even Republicans like GOP Rep. Phil Gingrey and Senator Chuck Grassley have signaled openness to it. It wouldn’t be surprising if we saw more movement in the days ahead.