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 legislation.
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 said.
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 activists comforting.
"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 done."