Stoned faced and curt, the President used unusually pointed words to criticize the 45 Senators, including four Democrats, who successfully defeated the bill, which would have expanded mandatory background checks to gun shows and online sales. Obama said the bill met his own test of worthwhile gun regulation, but “too many Senators failed theirs.” Vice President Joe Biden stood with a fixed grimace to his left, as families of victims from the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting and former Rep. Gabby Giffords stood nearby, fighting back tears. Dour-looking aides looked on from the colonnade.
“I’ve heard some say that blocking this step would be a victory. And my question is, a victory for who?” he continued. “All that happened today was the preservation of the loophole that lets dangerous criminals buy guns without a background check. That didn’t make our kids safer.”
His harsh words signaled the start of a next phase in the gun control debate, when advocates for more restrictions plan a more combative effort to pressure members of Congress, and denounce the National Rifle Association, in the run up to the 2014 midterm elections. “The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill,” Obama angrily said. “They claimed that it would create some sort of ‘big brother’ gun registry, even though the bill did the opposite. This legislation, in fact, outlawed any registry.”
Obama’s condemnation was joined by others who promise to continue to push for new gun control measures. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has promised to fund a multi-million dollar ad campaign against those who block new gun controls, said in a statement that the vote was a “damning indictment of the stranglehold that special interests have on Washington.” He blamed both parties for the defeat. “Democrats – who are so quick to blame Republicans for our broken gun laws – could not stand united,” he said in a statement. “And Republicans – who are so quick to blame Democrats for not being tough enough on crime – handed criminals a huge victory, by preserving their ability to buy guns illegally at gun shows and online and keeping the illegal trafficking market well-fed.”
“In 2014, our ever-expanding coalition of supporters will work to make sure that voters don’t forget,” Bloomberg added.
Giffords, who recently founded an outside group that aims to raise millions to advertise in the 2014 election around the gun issue, immediately sent a fundraising appeal to supporters. “It’s clear to me that if members of the U.S. Senate refuse to change the laws to reduce gun violence, then we need to change the members of the U.S. Senate,” she wrote in an email. Obama’s own activist group, Organizing for Action, also sent out statements calling for a response. “President Obama just called us to action to keep fighting to prevent gun violence,” said Jon Carson, the new group’s leader. “Let’s get to work.”
For Obama, the defeat was a long-time coming on an issue that while supported by the overwhelming majority of the public remains a touchstone for a vocal and well-organized minority. He invested more political capital in the gun control effort than any other issue in the first months of his second term, taking to the road, delivering press statements, and giving multiple interviews in support of the effort. In the White House’s mind, the Senate compromise deal, which was supported by four GOP senators, had given Republicans an opening to get in line with 90 percent of voters. Now Obama will return to the power of the bully pulpit and the campaign trail with an eye on the 2014 midterm elections.
“The real impact is going to have to come from the voters,” Obama said.
Mark Barden, the father of Sandy Hook Elementary shooting victim Daniel, age 7, spoke for the families in the Rose Garden and introduced President Obama. “We are not going away,” he said. “We will not be defeated. We are not defeated and we will not be defeated.”
Chris Cox, the chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, also released a statement after the Senate vote, calling the effort misguided. “Expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools,” the statement said. “The NRA will continue to work with Republicans and Democrats who are committed to protecting our children in schools, prosecuting violent criminals to the fullest extent of the law, and fixing our broken mental health system.”