The Senate defeated a plan to expand background checks for firearm purchasers, imperiling President Barack Obama’s bid for new gun-control measures four months after 20 schoolchildren were shot to death in Newtown, Connecticut.
Senators voted 54-46, with 60 needed to adopt the measure, as a handful of Democrats joined most Republicans in opposition. The vote was the most significant on gun control in 20 years and countered 90 percent public support of mandatory background checks.
“The fight has just begun; it’s not going away,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters after the vote.
Obama spoke at the White House following the Senate vote, standing with victims of gun violence, including former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and some of their relatives. Giffords, a Democrat, was shot in the head in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011.
Obama called the Senate vote a “distortion” of Senate rules because a minority of lawmakers was able to block the background-check proposal.
“The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill,” he said. ”They claimed that it would create some sort of big-government registry.”
The defeated amendment was offered last week by Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican, in an effort to craft a proposal that could win bipartisan support. The Senate also rejected Obama-backed proposals to ban assault weapons and limit the size of ammunition magazines. All required 60 votes.
The debate over gun control was reignited by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to kill 20 children and six school employees. Obama proposed a gun-safety agenda weeks later, including a ban on assault weapons and size limits on ammunition magazines.
Those proposals were removed from the Senate bill, S. 649, amid opposition by the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun lobby, which claims 4 million members.
The NRA’s top lobbyist, Chris Cox, said in a statement after the vote, “expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools.”
The NRA had said expanded background checks would lead to a national gun registry. Federal law bars such a registry, and licensed gun dealers have kept sales records since 1968.
Five Democrats voted against the background-check measure: Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Baucus, Pryor and Begich face re-election in 2014 in states carried last year by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Reid also voted no, allowing himself under Senate rules to seek reconsideration of the vote.
Republicans Mark Kirk of Illinois, John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Toomey voted for the amendment.
“Shame on you!” Patricia Maisch of Tucson, Arizona, shouted from the visitors’ gallery after the Senate vote result was announced. Maisch had helped overpower the gunman when Giffords was shot.
Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama opposed expanded background checks, calling them a “legislative misfire.”
“Who knows what will come next?” Shelby said. “These restrictions will not prevent the next tragedy.” Congress should instead focus on “glorified violence” in Hollywood, he said.
Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said the legislation is in the “feel-good category” and won’t prevent another Newtown.
Manchin spoke on the Senate floor about the resistant Democrats and Republicans.
“I understand that some of our colleagues believe that supporting this piece of legislation is risky politics,” Manchin said. “I think there’s a time in our life that’s a defining time, when you know the facts are on your side and you walk into the lion’s den and look that lion in the eye, and tell that lion, ‘Not today.’”
McCain took the floor to applaud Manchin and Toomey for “political courage.”
“You may not win today, but you did the right thing,” McCain said. “Doing the right thing is always a reward in itself.”
Mandatory background checks for most gun purchasers are supported by 91 percent of U.S. voters, including 96 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of gun-owning households, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted March 27-April 1.
Reid voted for a renewed ban on assault weapons offered in a separate amendment, reversing his earlier opposition.
“Assault weapons have one purpose and one purpose only, to kill a large number of people really quick,” Reid said.
California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, sponsor of the assault-weapon ban, urged fellow senators to “show some guts.”
“We’re here on six-year terms for a reason; to take votes on difficult issues,” Feinstein said before her amendment failed on a 40-60 vote.
A group of gun-violence survivors and relatives were in the Senate chamber to witness the vote, including Lori Haas, whose daughter, Emily, survived the mass shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2007. Haas said Reid is keeping the bill alive in the hopes of holding another vote.
“Reid is a smart man,” Haas said. If he didn’t have the votes, “why wouldn’t he wait a few more days?”
The Senate legislation also would increase funding for school safety and set new penalties for gun trafficking. It gained momentum last week when Manchin and Toomey agreed on the bolstered background-check plan.
Still, several Democrats from pro-gun states balked. Democratic leaders said they needed as many as 10 Republican votes to adopt the expanded background-check measure. Democrats control the Senate 55-45.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, in a statement called the vote on the background-check requirement “a damning indictment of the stranglehold that special interests have on Washington.” The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.
The president has campaigned across the U.S. for his gun proposals, and he brought relatives of Newtown victims to Washington on Air Force One last week to lobby lawmakers for their support.
Current law requires background checks for gun purchases from federally licensed dealers. Manchin and Toomey’s proposal would expand that to include purchases from private dealers at gun shows and over the Internet. It would exempt non-commercial gun sales or transfers between family members.
The Senate also defeated an amendment that would allow people with concealed-weapon permits to carry hidden firearms into other states, including those with stricter standards for issuing permits. Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas proposed the measure.
“I have a great deal of concern about concealed carry,” New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat, said earlier this week. “New York City is not Wyoming.”
Even if the bill passed the Senate, it still would face an uncertain fate in the House, where there is widespread Republican opposition. Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said he won’t make a “blanket” commitment to bring a gun measure to the House floor.