President 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 in Newtown 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 Biden and former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was shot in 2011 in Tucson 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, were 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 J. Toomey (R-Pa.), announced a compromise deal.
Yet even a late flurry of meetings between senators and Sandy Hook Elementary School parents was not enough to bend the will of Democratic centrists and more moderate Republicans. Although they had been open to expanded 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 W. Cox said in a statement.
Republican opponents said the Manchin-Toomey amendment eventually would have led to a national gun registry, but 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.