Gun control advocates led by President Barack Obama suffered a huge setback Wednesday as the Senate defeated a delicately crafted compromise aimed at strengthening background checks for gun buyers – and then proceeded to reject a ban on assault weapons and limits on ammunition clips.
The votes were a bitter reminder that winning even the most gentle of gun control measures faces a near-impossible path to winning congressional approval.
“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” a clearly irritated Obama said after the background check vote.
The Senate will resume voting on gun measures Thursday at noon. But the amendments it will consider are seen as minor, and once those votes are done, lawmakers are scheduled to move on to other business. It's unclear when the gun legislation will come up again.
Gun control backers thought this time might be different, that they could reverse the years of frustration getting meaningful gun control legislation approved. The horror of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, where a gunman killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults in Newtown, Conn., was never far from the minds of senators.
Victims of gun violence from Newtown, Tucson, Colorado and other sites of recent horrors watched the votes from the galleries. “Shame on you!” Patricia Maisch, a survivor of the January 2011 Tucson shopping center shootings, shouted as the Senate vote to reject the background check compromise was announced.
At the White House after the vote, Mark Barden, the father of a child killed at Sandy Hook, recalled how “we met with dozens of Democrats and Republicans, and shared with them pictures of our children, our spouses, our parents who lost their lives on December 14th. Expanded background checks wouldn’t have saved our loved ones, but still we came to support a bipartisan proposal from two senators.”
The disappointment and anger were clear. Obama had a personal lobbying effort unlike any seen by a president since the Clinton administration. After the background check defeat, he went to the Rose Garden, flanked by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Vice President Joe Biden, and put the blame for the defeat squarely on the gun lobby. Giffords was severely wounded in the Tucson incident.
“All that happened today was the preservation of the loophole that lets dangerous criminals buy guns without a background check,” Obama said.
“Instead of supporting this compromise,” he said, “the gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill. They claimed that it would create some sort of ‘big brother’ gun registry, even though the bill did the opposite.”
The strategy worked, Obama lamented. “Unfortunately, this pattern of spreading untruths about this legislation served a purpose, because those lies upset an intense minority of gun owners, and that in turn intimidated a lot of senators.’’
To change Washington, he said, “You, the American people, are going to have to sustain some passion about this. And when necessary, you’ve got to send the right people to Washington.”
In vote after vote Wednesday afternoon, gun control backers came up short of the 60 needed for passage.
The background check compromise got 54 votes. The assault weapons ban got 40, even after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pleaded with colleagues to “show some guts.” The effort to put curbs on ammunition clips got 46 votes.
The votes largely reflected geography. Senators from more rural, more conservative states sided with gun rights advocates. Senators with more urban constituencies backed gun control.
Gun rights supporters tried to get some changes to the bill, and those too failed. A bid to expand concealed-carry laws got 57 votes. An alternative to the background check compromise got 52.
Many had thought the tortured memory of Newtown would finally help win at least the background check effort.
“If tragedy strikes again – if innocents are gunned down in a classroom or a theater or a restaurant – I could not live with myself as a father, as a husband, as a grandfather or as a friend knowing that I didn’t do everything in my power to prevent it,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
But conscience meant different things to different senators.
Reid’s Nevada colleague, Republican Sen. Dean Heller, was seen as a potential swing vote for the background check compromise. He voted no.
“The onerous paperwork and expansion of federal power mandated in this legislation are too great of a concern,” he explained in a statement. “I believe that this legislation could lead to the creation of a national gun registry and puts additional burdens on law-abiding citizens.”
That was the opponents’ chief complaint. The background check provision was viewed as a mild form of gun control. Crafted by gun rights backers Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., it would extend background checks to gun shows and online sales but would exempt private transactions.
Manchin, a National Rifle Association member, pleaded with colleagues to back the measure and said on the Senate floor that the NRA had lied about the measure’s reach.
“There is not a universal background check,” he said, answering critics. “There is nothing in this bill that basically says that you’re living in a neighborhood, and you want to sell your neighbor your gun, you can do it. No background checks are required.”
Other opponents argued that the Manchin-Toomey approach simply wouldn’t work.
“We should not further strain the existing broken system by expanding the use of an incomplete database to more transactions,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. “We should fix the existing system.”
Grassley and Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, offered an alternative that would increase the number of mental health records entered into the federal background check database.
The Senate voted on a host of other gun provisions. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, tried to require states to respect concealed-carry gun permits issued by other states. Cornyn, speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, insisted that it wouldn’t establish a national standard for concealed-carry.
“What it would do is to effectively treat concealed-carry licenses like a driver’s license,” Cornyn said. “If you’re driving from Virginia to Texas, you don’t have to obtain a separate driver’s license for each state you drive through.”
But Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., drew a line at his state’s border.
“Concealed-carry is my greatest worry,” he told reporters Tuesday. “The good news there is, instead of needing 60 votes, we need 41” to defeat the amendment.
The Senate also voted on a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines long sought by Feinstein. She had succeeded nearly two decades earlier getting an assault weapons ban passed and launched a forceful renewed effort after the Newtown shootings, but by Wednesday morning, she had all but conceded that the push would not succeed.
“Not every issue we vote on in the Senate is a life or death matter – I believe this is,” she said on the Senate floor. “I urge my colleagues to stand tall and support this amendment.”
But few senators were present – one was Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat who was presiding over the empty chamber. She voted no on Feinstein’s amendment.