The National Rifle Association loves Jeff Flake. The gun lobby consistently gave him an A rating for years when he was a popular House Republican. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre even campaigned for him last fall. But now that Flake is entering the 113th Congress as the junior Senator from Arizona — now that Sandy Hook has happened — he's become the first GOP Senator to break ranks publicly with the NRA's plan to put armed guards in every school in America. And with Congress set to take up new gun legislation any day now, that could end up being a very big deal.
In an interview with local news station KTVK broadcast Wednesday night, Flake said he was "troubled" by the NRA proposal to put more guns in schools:
"I was troubled by that proposal, greatly troubled by that kind of Washington mandate, federal involvement in local schools," Flake goes on say in the interview with 3TV. "Schools, with regard to curriculum, with regard to teachers and staffing, those decisions are best made on the local level ... As well as security issues are best made at the local level as well, not some edict from Washington."
Ever since LaPierre's bizarre press conference a week after the Newtown shootings, Senate Republicans have fallen in line — or at least into silence — with the NRA plan, and refused to back Democratic plans to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazine clips. Bloomberg's Jonathan D. Salant succinctly catalogued the GOP Senate support: Senators like Wyoming's John Barasso, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, and Georgia's John Isakson either publicly supported LaPierre's plan to put more guns in schools, rebuked gun control, or both. All the so-called "gun control converts" have been Democrats who are slowly turning on guns. The only prominent Republican to have gone full on 360 since Newtown is Joe Scarborough, who, to be sure, is not working in elected office anymore.
And while the real fight on new gun laws will come down to Flake's former House Republican colleagues, his sudden turn may say speak truth to the intersection between the gun lobby's reputation and its actual remaining power. Flake, after all, should have fallen in line. According to the Sunlight foundation, he's accepted over $13,000 of the NRA's money since 1990. Flake has also had the NRA's help in his tight-knit, gun-toting campaign for Senate — from LaPierre himself. "Late in the race, the powerful group sent its leader, Wayne LaPierre, to the state to stump for votes while also handing Flake's campaign bags of cash to stay competitive in a surprisingly tight senate contest," KTVK reported as part of its Wednesday interview.
Even though Flake framed the idea of armed guards in the Republican ideal of small government, make no mistake: turning on Wayne LaPierre is like turning on the godfather, especially when the rest of the Republican Senators have fallen in line. Except now, the godfather may be a lot less powerful than before.