“Shame on you!” shouted an elderly woman seated in the Senate gallery late Wednesday afternoon. The Senate had just rejected a bipartisan deal to expand gun-sale background checks, a measure some 90% of the American people support. For a moment the members, who had been huddling in small groups and cracking jokes as they milled on the blue carpet, looked up in astonishment. A second woman called out; both were ushered into the hallway. Then the members of the Senate, in their defiantly analog way — a simple finger down after catching the eye of the clerk calling roll — resumed the quiet process of killing the best chance at a gun-control bill in a generation.
It was a bruising defeat for gun-control advocates, just five months after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary raised hopes that the gun lobby could be beaten if not exactly tamed. The Obama Administration pulled out all the stops to prevent it, mounting a vigorous lobbying push. Vice President Joe Biden presided from the dais. Gabby Giffords roamed the halls of the Capitol. Relatives of the victims of recent mass shootings, ribbons honoring the fallen pinned to their shirts, looked on from the gallery to apply an extra ounce of pressure.
None of it worked. In the first significant defeat of President Obama’s second term, the Democrat-controlled Senate was unable to overcome a Republican filibuster on the bipartisan background-check deal crafted by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey. The measure, which was weaker than what gun-control advocates wanted, fell 54 to 46 — falling several votes short of the 60-vote threshold required. Four Republicans supported it, and four Democrats voted no.
A day that Democrats said would prove the NRA’s power had waned instead showcased its strength as well as the difficulty of threading even modest gun restrictions through Congress. The Manchin-Toomey amendment, which would have expanded background checks to gun shows and online sales, was the cornerstone of the gun bill, and after it failed, the rest of the Democrats’ wish list evaporated as well. An amendment to reinstate the assault-weapons ban went down as expected, 40 to 60. An amendment to limit high-capacity magazines lost, 46 to 54. Even a bipartisan agreement to curb gun trafficking — which had the support of the NRA — succumbed, 58 to 42. All seven votes on the day failed to clear the 60-vote threshold.
“It’s devastating. The Senate said no to the American people,” says Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal. “The deck is stacked against us if we need 60 votes. The majority was in favor, but we need more than a majority.”
In the corridors of the Capitol, supporters of the bill pointed many fingers of blame. There was the NRA, which Manchin accused of lying about the legislation’s contents. There were Republicans, like Nevada’s Dean Heller or Ted Cruz of Texas, who opposed the measure on the grounds that it would be the first step toward a national gun registry — an outcome the bill explicitly forbids. And there were the moderate Democrats from rural, gun-happy states who are up for re-election in 2014 and didn’t want to risk their political futures on a bill that was sure to die in the Republican-controlled House anyway.
The families of the victims, who have been camped out on Capitol Hill for the better part of two weeks, knew all along, as Senate majority leader Harry Reid said, that “this wouldn’t be easy.” Asked what she expected to happen on Wednesday, Erica Lafferty, the 27-year-0ld daughter of Sandy Hook Elementary’s murdered principal, said succinctly: “This.”
“I’ve been roaming the halls of the Senate building all week,” she said, noting that she met with several Senators who opposed new gun measures on the grounds that they wouldn’t have prevented the Newtown tragedy. “It wouldn’t have stopped Sandy Hook. I’m more aware than anyone in this entire world that background checks would not — are not going to bring my mom back,” she said. “I get that. Background checks might make sure that another 27-year-old kid doesn’t have to get married in another two months without her mom.”
What comes next after the emotional loss? Democrats pledged to recommit to the issue. “Today fear, mistruth and brute political force won out over what is right, and America will be a less safe place because of it,” conceded Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, one of the architects of the background-check deal. “But I say to the American people, so many of whom just can’t understand what’s happening here in this capital — don’t give up faith. Things change quickly here in Washington. They changed for gay marriage. They’re changing for immigration. And they will change for gun safety sooner than you think.”
The background-check package can be brought up again — Reid voted “no” in a procedural move that allows him to reintroduce the amendment again — but it’s unclear when supporters will be able to piece together the votes if they couldn’t on Wednesday. “The bill is still on the calendar. This fight is far from over,” says Blumenthal, but as he noted, the Senate is structured so that a determined minority can thwart the will of the body, let alone the wishes of American voters.
As they proved on Wednesday, Republicans remain committed to opposing even modest changes to gun law. “Look, there’s not one of us who wouldn’t want to find a way to prevent anything like Sandy Hook from ever happening again. We have different ideas about how best to get there,” said Utah Republican Mike Lee after the vote. In the wake of tragedies like the one in Newtown, Lee said, gun bills are often considered as an “abstract” concept, rather than assessed through the prism of their potential impact. “I’m not interested in voting for legislation that would do little or nothing to prevent violent crime.”
Gun violence is not an abstract issue, however, for the families of the victims. It is not abstract to Patricia Maisch, the woman who shamed the Senate from the gallery. Maisch was present at Gabby Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” event at a Tucson shopping mall in January 2011, when a deranged constituent killed six people and wounded 13 more with a high-capacity Glock. Maisch, petite and in her 60s, pried a clip out of the shooter’s hands as he tried to reload. “They are an embarrassment to this country,” she told reporters after. “They don’t have any compassion or care for people who have been taken brutally from their families.” They “stand up there and think it’s a bunch of numbers,” seethed Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was shot and wounded at Virginia Tech in 2007.
In the end, Democrats acknowledged, the best way to change the law may be to change the people charged with making it. “There is more that we can do and will do, reaching out to convince those members who voted the other way today, and perhaps in the next election to challenge them,” said Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. Said Reid: “This is just the beginning — this is not the end.” But the next round could be months, or even years, away.