CHARLESTON - The National Rifle Association plans to mail 200,000 letters to West Virginians this week, stepping up its attack on U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin over the gun purchase background check measure he's co-sponsored.
Among other criticisms, the NRA missive faults Manchin, a Democrat, for promising not to support such a proposal when he sought the group's backing in 2012.
The NRA had repeatedly endorsed the former governor and state legislator throughout his political career, and awarded him top ratings for his record. That changed once he began pursuing the background check measure with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., following the massacre last December of 20 first-graders and six educators at a Connecticut elementary school.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., left, meets in his office with families of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., on the day he announced that he reached a bipartisan deal on expanding background checks to more gun buyers, on Capitol Hill in Washington April 10. From left are Manchin, Nelba Marquez-Greene, mother of victim Ana Marquez-Greene, and Mark Barden, father of victim Daniel Barden.
The mailing follows dueling TV ads Manchin and the NRA aired last month. Citing provisions in his measure aimed at protecting gun ownership rights, Manchin on Tuesday touted his lifetime NRA membership and called the letters another sign the group's leadership "is more interested in scoring cheap political points."
The proposal with Toomey, which stalled in April, would broaden background checks to cover online sales and all purchases at gun shows. It would exempt such non-commercial transactions as sales between friends and relatives. Meant to prevent criminals and the seriously mentally ill from obtaining firearms, the background check system now applies only to sales handled by licensed gun dealers.
The NRA says that most gun show vendors are licensed dealers, and cites the U.S. Justice Department to argue that gun shows supply less than 1 percent of armed criminals.
Its letter also casts the current background check system, which the NRA says it supports, as "already overwhelmed and overburdened" without the proposed expansion.
"The Manchin amendment would have forced law-abiding gun owners like you to get government permission to buy a firearm from a lifelong friend if it was seen on Facebook, advertised in a local church bulletin, or the transaction occurred at a gun show," the letter reads.
The two-page mailing does not mention Toomey - though it does refer to President Barack Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. None are popular with gun rights advocates, and the president has generally gotten low marks in West Virginia.
Manchin has noted that Toomey has so far escaped the NRA's wrath, attributing that to partisan bias. The NRA counters that Manchin has maintained a high media profile as he seeks additional support for the measure.
Continuing the theme of its TV ad, which accused Manchin of an about-face on the gun issue, the letter also presses the argument that expanding the background check system would lead to a national gun registry. The Manchin-Toomey proposal would broaden an existing ban of any registry, which Second Amendment supporters warn could help the government to tax or confiscate firearms. While discounting the effectiveness of that provision in the measure, the NRA questions what "Eric Holder's Justice Department" would do with such a law, referring to the U.S. attorney general.
"We've seen plenty of reasons recently why federal government agencies can't be trusted with our personal and private information," the letter said.
Manchin also recently went back and forth with Beretta USA, after a company executive blamed him for the firearms maker's decision not to consider West Virginia as a home for its facilities. Beretta had expressed interest in leaving Maryland after that state passed a wide-ranging gun control measure. The company has decided to stay in Maryland, at least for now, while not ruling out expansion offers from other states.