WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Barack Obama’s ambitious effort to overhaul the nation’s gun laws in response to December’s school massacre in Connecticut suffered a resounding defeat Wednesday, when every major proposal he championed fell apart on the Senate floor.
It was a stunning collapse for gun-control advocates just four months after the deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, led the president and many others to believe that the political climate on guns had been altered in their favor.
The national drive for laws that might prevent another mass shooting unraveled under intense pressure from the gun rights lobby, which used regional and cultural differences among senators to prevent new firearms restrictions.
One by one, the Senate blocked or defeated proposals that would ban certain military-style assault rifles and limit the size of ammunition magazines.
But the biggest setback for the White House was the defeat of a measure to expand background checks to most gun sales. The Senate defied polls showing that nine in 10 Americans support the idea, which was designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.
“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” a visibly angry Obama said as he delivered his response to the nation.
The president was flanked by Newtown families, a scowling Vice President Joe Biden and former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot in 2011 in Tucson, Arizona, and limped from the Oval Office to join Obama in the Rose Garden.
The fierce confrontation on Capitol Hill over an issue that has divided Americans for decades is likely to continue, but any legislation that may ultimately pass probably would be far more modest than the measures Obama had championed.
Newtown thrust gun control to the top of the president’s second-term agenda, and he spent considerable political capital campaigning for his proposals. But he was unable to translate overwhelming popular support into legislative action.
Background checks for all gun buyers, long considered the most politically palatable of Obama’s proposals, was the linchpin and last week had seemed poised for passage after a pair of pro-gun senators, Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., announced a compromise deal.
Yet even a late flurry of meetings between senators and Sandy Hook parents was not enough to bend the will of Democratic centrists and more moderate Republicans. Although they had been open to background checks, many of them voted no.
Obama sounded exasperated that senators were not more responsive to public opinion and did not offer what he considered worthy explanations for why they voted down the measures.
The president lashed out at the National Rifle Association for having “willfully lied” about the background-check proposal to stoke fear among gun rights supporters that Congress would violate their Second Amendment rights or create a federal gun registry.
And he laid the blame squarely on Republicans, although four Democrats also opposed the bill.
“Ninety percent of Democrats in the Senate voted for that idea, but it’s not going to happen because 90 percent of Republicans just voted against it,” Obama said, adding that they had “caved to the pressure.”
Obama insisted that Wednesday’s votes were “round one” and pledged to do everything he can to take further action. He also warned of political consequences in the 2014 midterm elections.
“We can do more if Congress gets its act together,” Obama said. “And if this Congress refuses to listen to the American people and enact common-sense gun legislation, then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters.”
The NRA celebrated the collapse of the Manchin-Toomey proposal.
“This amendment would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution,” NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox said in a statement.
Republican opponents said the Manchin-Toomey amendment eventually would have led to a national gun registry, even though the proposal included language outlawing a federal registry. They also said it would do little to prevent mass shootings while creating an imposition for law-abiding citizens, especially those in rural areas.
“My biggest concern with the legislation, the Democrat legislation on the floor, is it doesn’t address the problem,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex. “It doesn’t target violent criminals. Instead, what it does is, it targets law-abiding citizens.”
The NRA galvanized its members to pepper senators with letters, e-mails, phone calls and appearances at town hall meetings, which convinced enough of them that voting for the measures would jeopardize their reelection prospects.
A series of votes Wednesday afternoon revealed insufficient Republican support for all of the proposals Obama sought. First, in a 54 to 46 vote, just four Republicans joined the majority of Democrats to support the Manchin-Toomey background check proposal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted no to preserve special privileges to call another vote on the amendment at any time, meaning supporters fell five short of the 60-vote threshold required for approval.
In other votes, just 40 senators supported the assault-weapons ban and 46 supported limiting the size of ammunition magazines. In addition, an NRA-backed measure that clarified gun-trafficking laws fell short,with just 58 votes, stunning Democrats.
More senators, 57, voted for a provision that would greatly expand gun rights – allowing people with permits to carry concealed weapons in their states to carry them nationwide – than supported expanding background checks.
“We’ve got to bring these votes back to the American people,” said freshman Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. “This is worse than I ever thought.”
The raw emotion of the defeat played out in the Senate gallery just after Biden, presiding over the Senate, read the vote count.
“Shame on you,” at least two women were heard shouting.
As police escorted them from the Capitol, Patricia Maisch and Lori Haas said they were angry. Maisch knocked a large ammunition magazine out of the hands of Jared Lee Loughner in January 2011 after he shot Giffords and other bystanders.
“They are an embarrassment to this country,” Maisch said as officers tried to remove her from the building. “I hate them,” she added of the senators.
Haas, whose daughter, Emily, was wounded in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, said: “We’re sick and tired of the death in this country and these legislators stand up there and think it’s a bunch of numbers. … It’s a shame, it’s appalling, it’s disgusting.”
Moments earlier, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who had been absent in recent months as he battles cancer, was brought to the floor by wheelchair. When a clerk called his name, the 89-year-old senator shouted, “Aye.”
Lautenberg’s Democratic colleagues applauded, but his vote was not enough.
Inside the White House, officials privately expressed frustration and dismay that Obama and Biden had, polls show, sold the public on their proposals through a series of campaign-style events but that the inside game of lining up Senate votes was not as well organized.
The key senators in play came from Southern and rural states – including Mark Pryor, D-Ark., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. And yet New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a political independent, quickly became the public face of gun control at a time when conservatives turned him into their bogeyman for his efforts to limit the size of soft drinks. This week, for instance, the NRA ran banner ads on news websites urging voters to oppose “Bloomberg & Obama.”
Bloomberg, who financed television advertisements pressuring senators, said Wednesday’s vote was “a damning indictment of the stranglehold that special interests have on Washington.”
Within minutes of Wednesday’s vote, there were calls to unseat opposing senators when they stand for re-election.
“The U.S. Senate decided to do the unthinkable about gun violence – nothing at all,” Giffords wrote in an email to supporters. “It’s clear to me that if members of the U.S. Senate refuse to change the laws to reduce gun violence, then we need to change the members of the U.S. Senate.”
Some leading gun-control advocates acknowledged that it was too difficult to begin a national debate following the Newtown shootings and expect a successful outcome just four months later.
When Obama traveled to Newtown in December to eulogize the victims, he vowed to use “whatever power this office holds” to enact changes that could prevent future gun violence. And he did. But some allies said he should have begun his effort sooner, such as after Giffords was shot two years ago.
“Post-Newtown, the president’s been wonderful, but if more of this had happened after the Giffords shooting maybe we could’ve laid the groundwork then to get something passed now,” said Paul Helmke, a former president of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence.
Gun-control supporters were buoyed last week as Manchin and Toomey’s compromise appeared to gain momentum, but saw the vote count slip away this week amid what advocates decried as a campaign of misinformation by the NRA.
At a private luncheon Tuesday, Manchin made an appeal to his Democratic colleagues, a senior Democrat said. Manchin said Newtown parents told him they understood that the background-check amendment would not have prevented their tragedy because the alleged shooter’s mother had bought the weapons legally, but that it could prevent a future massacre.
That was enough, Manchin said in an interview later. “If you can do that and you’re sent here – and we all take that oath – shouldn’t you do it?”
Paul Kane and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.
© The Washington Post, 2013