President Barack Obama's push for tighter gun control faced likely failure after the measure with the best chance of getting through Congress was blocked in the Senate. An angry Obama, surrounded by shooting victims and families of victims, said the powerful gun control lobby "willfully lied" to the American people.
"All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington," the president said Wednesday evening. "Who are we here to represent?"
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After giving little attention to the always sensitive issue of gun control during his first term, Obama made it a top priority for his second after a string of mass shootings capped by the December attack at a Connecticut school that left 20 young children dead. At the time, Obama called the attack the worst day of his presidency.
Supporters of gun control knew they had to act quickly before too much time passed after the shooting. Obama traveled the country urging people to contact their lawmakers, many of whom are under pressure by the National Rifle Association to follow its lobbying goals.
The measure that failed Wednesday was the result of a rare bipartisan effort by a handful of senators who put together a proposal to tighten background checks for gun buyers – a gun-related issue on which polls say a majority of Americans agree.
But the Senate vote of 54-46 was well short of the 60 votes needed to advance the measure. An attempt to ban assault-style rifles failed as well, along with a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The defeat in the Senate was especially stinging because the chamber is controlled by Obama's own Democratic Party.
Aware of Americans' passions for the constitutional right to bear firearms, key supporters of stricter gun control had made an effort to show that they, too, were gun owners and had no intention – despite the NRA's warnings – of taking away guns that were purchased lawfully. The Obama administration even circulated a photo of the president firing a gun while skeet shooting at Camp David.
Commemorating Connecticut victims (Photo: Reuters)
Families of victims of the Connecticut shootings joined Obama on several occasions and lobbied lawmakers on their own in Washington.
"Our hearts are broken," Mark Barden, who lost his 7-year-old son, Daniel, in the Connecticut shooting, said after Wednesday's vote. "Our spirit is not."
Some senators said afterward that they had not wanted to meet with the mothers and fathers of the dead, or said it was difficult to look at photographs that the parents carried of their young children.
"I think that in some cases, the president has used them as props, and that disappoints me," Sen. Rand Paul said before the vote. Obama later responded to such criticism: "Do we really think that thousands of families whose lives have been shattered by gun violence don't have a right to weigh in on this issue?" the president said.
Some of those parents watched as the gun measure died in the Senate on Wednesday, along with relatives of victims from other recent mass shootings. Also watching was former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a gun owner who has become a vocal gun control supporter since being shot in the head two years ago.
Forty-one Republicans and five Democrats sided together Wednesday to kill the background checks proposal. It would have required background checks for all transactions at gun shows and online. Currently the checks, designed to prevent criminals and the seriously mentally ill from purchasing firearms, are mandated only for sales handled by licensed gun dealers.
The NRA told lawmakers it intended to keep track of how the votes were cast and consider them in making decisions about whom to support in the midterm elections for Congress next year.
Even before the vote began it was apparent that the bill was in trouble, with a growing number of senators saying they would vote against the measure.
'Simply a lie'
In the hours before the vote, Sen. Joe Manchin, a gun supporter who made a high-profile shift shortly after the Connecticut shooting and became one of the bill's sponsors, bluntly accused the NRA of making false claims about the expansion of background checks.
"I don't know how to put the words any plainer than this: That is a lie. That is simply a lie," he said, accusing the organization of telling its supporters that friends, neighbors and some family members would need federal permission to transfer ownership of firearms to one another.
The NRA did not respond immediately to the charge, but it issued a statement after the vote that restated the claim. The proposal "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," said a statement from Chris Cox, a top lobbyist for the group.
The challenges of getting gun control measures through Congress have been clear for months, and some states have stepped up to pass their own laws. They include New York and Colorado, which suffered two of the worst mass shootings in US history – at a high school in Columbine in 1999 and at a movie theater in Aurora last year.
Connecticut also passed gun control laws. Its governor, Dannel P. Malloy, on Wednesday said US senators who voted against the background checks measure "should be ashamed of themselves."
Wednesday's votes, however, were unlikely to be the last word on a sensitive issue that Democratic leaders had shied away from for nearly two decades.
"This effort isn't over," Obama vowed. Democratic aides said in advance the issue would be brought back before the Senate, giving gun control supporters more time to win over converts.
Numerous polls in recent months have shown support for enhanced gun control measures, including background checks, but it may be weakening.
An Associated Press-GfK poll this month showed that 49 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws, down from 58 percent in January. In that recent survey, 38 percent said they want the laws to remain the same and 10 percent want them eased.
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