WASHINGTON - Minutes after he shared a stage with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he still plans to oppose a bill supported by Giffords that calls for expanded background checks for gun buyers.
Flake announced his opposition to the bipartisan Senate bill Monday night on Facebook, just hours before he joined Giffords at a ceremony honoring Gabe Zimmerman, one of six people killed in the 2011 Tucson shooting that severely wounded Giffords and 12 others.
She and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, started Americans for Responsible Solutions to fight for gun-control legislation shortly after the December shooting at a Newtown, Conn., grade school that left 20 children and six teachers dead.
Kelly, appearing Tuesday morning at a newsmaker breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, called the timing of Flake's statement "not ideal."
Even though Flake and Giffords are friends, Kelly said Americans for Responsible Solutions would back a challenger to Flake in the future "if there was the right candidate out there" and the senator opposes gun-control measures.
"Friendship is one thing, saving people's lives, especially first graders, is another," said Kelly, referring to the Newtown victims.
Kelly expressed frustration toward senators who he said were looking for reasons to deny any form of gun control because pro-gun lobbying groups support their campaigns.
Kelly pointed to polls that show sweeping support for background checks, which he said are backed by 90 percent of American households. He said his group would be willing to fund legislators with more courage.
"If they won't stand up and do what the American people are asking, we will be there to replace them," Kelly said.
Kelly also questioned whether Flake had read the bill.
In his Facebook post, Flake said the background check bill proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., would expand background checks to include almost all private sales, if the sale was made public in any way. That could include something as simple as an office message board, he said.
"This simply goes too far," wrote Flake, who had voted earlier this week to block a filibuster and allow debate to begin on the Manchin-Toomey bill. The bill is set to be taken up by the Senate this week.
Flake wrote that he does support improving the National Instant Criminal Background System and clarifying "who should not be able to obtain a firearm due to mental illness."
Kelly did not appreciate Flake's critique.
"His concerns are clearly addressed in the piece of legislation," Kelly said at the breakfast.
He said he planned to talk to Flake and hoped to change his mind.
But Flake said after the Zimmerman ceremony that while he and Kelly had spoken, he was not going to change his position on the bill.
"We have a difference of opinion of what the language says," he said of the Manchin-Toomey bill.
There was little mention of gun control and no obvious tension at the afternoon ceremony to dedicate a plaque naming a meeting room in the Capitol Visitor Center for Zimmerman. Giffords was on the platform with Flake, who helped push legislation in the House last year to name the room for Zimmerman, an aide to Giffords.
Kelly also took the stage to offer respects for Zimmerman on behalf of himself and his wife, who said only a few words.
During the hourlong ceremony, Vice President Joe Biden, Speaker John Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Zimmerman's parents, among others, all commemorated his life that was cut short during the Tucson shooting. Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, who was shot in the Tucson attack and who succeeded Giffords, also spoke.
C.J. Karamargin, who worked as a staffer with Zimmerman, said the ceremony would have impressed his friend.
"He would have never gotten over the fact that the vice president actually had very tremendous words to say about him," Karamargin said.