Senate's failure to pass meaningful gun control 'shameful,' Obama says

The Senate on Wednesday failed to get the 60 votes necessary to pass a bipartisan bill that would have expanded gun-control background checks to gun shows and Internet sales.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Obama frowns as he speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Wednesday about a bill to expand background checks on guns that was defeated in the Senate. He is joined by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (2nd l.), Vice President Joe Biden, and Newtown family members (from l.) Neil Heslin, father of Jesse Lewis; and Mark Barden.

A clearly angry President Obama called Wednesday "a pretty shameful day for Washington" after the US Senate failed to pass a key bipartisan bill to expand background gun checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.

He called the gun lobby “willful liars” and berated mostly Republican senators for “looking for any excuse” to vote "no" on a compromise bill hammered out by Sens. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia that would have made it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to legally buy guns at gun shows or over the Internet.

But in his comments, Mr. Obama also hinted at a distinct “passion” gap between those who love guns and those who want to see more restrictions on gun ownership. Flanked by some Sandy Hook parents as well as former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a gun owner who barely survived an assassination attempt three years ago, Obama acknowledged that the 90 percent of Americans who, according to polls, support stronger background checks didn’t carry as much weight as impassioned gun supporters who have burned up the phone lines to Washington in opposition to any new federal gun-control measure.

“An intense minority of gun owners intimidated senators,” Obama said.

The statement was a tacit admission that, even after several of the most traumatic mass shootings in American history in recent years, culminating in the massacre of 20 Sandy Hook first-graders and six staff in Newtown, Conn., last December, the dynamics of the gun-control debate appear to have changed little.

After the Newtown shooting, that did not appear to be the case. Unlike other previous mass shootings, the Newtown massacre nudged public opinion toward increased gun control – including an assault weapons ban, limits on magazine size, and expanded background checks – giving the first opening in a generation for a major shift in how America, a nation with a clear gun violence problem, addresses gun ownership without infringing on the Second Amendment.

An AP-Gfk poll in January showed 58 percent of Americans in support of stronger gun laws. But as of this month, only 49 percent of Americans said the same thing.

The defeat was bitter for Obama, who had spent enormous political capital to shore up disparate antigun violence groups in order to put pressure on lawmakers. The failure of that strategy amounted to an “unmitigated disaster,” as one senior Obama associate told the National Journal.

The defeat came after several emotional meetings with gun victims, including Ms. Giffords and families of the Newtown victims. What became the centerpiece of the push to woo reluctant Republicans was a compromise amendment by Senators Toomey and Manchin, which expanded background checks for many gun sales.

The vote was 54 to 46, well short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster. Three Republicans voted in favor, five Democrats voted against – though one was Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, who, under Senate rules, had to vote "no" if he wanted to keep open the possibility of bringing the bill back.

While Obama said the gun lobby “willfully lied” in order to fire up constituents, gun rights organization including, but not limited to, the National Rifle Association objected to details of the bill, especially rules about how firearms could be transferred between people.

One of the senators that gun-control advocates needed was Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire, but on Wednesday she backed away from tentative support.

“While steps must be taken to improve the existing background check system, I will not support the Manchin-Toomey legislation, which I believe would place unnecessary burdens on law-abiding gun owners and allow for potential overreach by the federal government into private gun sales,” she said.

Gun control supporters quickly seized on the defeat as more evidence of “special interests” hogtying Washington.

“Today’s vote is a damning indictment of the stranglehold that special interests have on Washington. More than 40 US senators would rather turn their backs on the 90 percent of Americans who support comprehensive background checks than buck the increasingly extremist wing of the gun lobby,” says New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

But Obama’s analysis hewed closer to explanations offered by gun rights advocates: that grass-roots passion, not polls or professional lobbying, made a big difference. Obama urged voters concerned about gun violence in the wake of Newtown to “sustain some passion, and when necessary send the right people to Washington, and that requires strength and requires persistence.”

Paul Valone, director of the pro-gun rights group Grassroots North Carolina, in Raleigh, in essence agreed with that analysis.

“The fact is, gun rights organizations have spent 20 years preparing for just this moment, we’ve spent 20 years building alert networks, and essentially creating instant lines of communication so we can put intense grass-roots pressure on legislators,” he says. “In the end, this came down to constituent pressure. No amount of nebulous polling compares to thousands of angry phone calls and e-mails, and that’s what we do, and we’re actually fairly good at it.”

At an interfaith service in Newtown after the shootings, Obama said, “I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves … we’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”

On Wednesday, the president recalled those words and noted that “everybody talked about how we were going to change something, to make sure this didn’t happen. I’m assuming that the emotions that we’ve all felt since Newtown … are not a temporary thing. I’m assuming our expressions of grief and our commitment to do something different are not empty words.”

“I see this as just Round 1,” Obama said.

On that point, too, gun rights supporters agreed. “We’re not claiming victory yet,” says Mr. Valone.

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