The first major effort to overhaul America’s gun laws in two decades has hit a roadblock in Congress. The Senate voted down a bipartisan proposal to expand background check requirements for firearms purchasers, dealing a severe blow to gun control efforts just four months after a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.
Gun control advocates wanted a ban on military-style assault weapons and restrictions on ammunition magazines. But many were willing to settle for expanded background checks to keep firearms out of the hands of violent criminals and the mentally ill. In the end, that proposal did not get the required three-fifths backing in the Senate.
“The yeas are 54, the nays are 46. The amendment is not agreed to,” Vice President Joe Biden announced as he presided over the vote.
Four Republicans voted for the Manchin-Toomey proposal, named for the Democratic and Republican senators who crafted it. Five Democrats voted against.
Days of passionate debate preceded Wednesday’s vote. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, said gun buyers must be scrutinized.
“Do we honestly think it makes sense to allow someone without a mandatory background check to buy an assault weapon that can fire up to 13 rounds a second?,” he said.
Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican, argued that the government cannot prevent gun violence. “No amount of government intervention can prevent irrational people from doing terrible things,” Shelby said.
Opponents said new gun control measures will erode law-abiding Americans’ right to bear arms and do nothing to improve public safety. “People who steal guns do not submit to background checks,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican.
Backers of the legislation countered that the lack of a perfect solution to gun violence should not halt all efforts to reduce it.
“The longer I have spent in this place, the more I am convinced that there are people who actually do believe that we should just go back to the days of the Wild, Wild West. That we should usher in a new era of gun control Darwinism, in which the good guys have guns and the bad guys have guns and we just hope the good guys shoot the bad guys,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat.
Present in the Senate gallery for the vote were family members of victims of the December school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. They joined Democratic senators for a post-vote news conference.
“Today, fear, mistruth and brute political force won out over what is right, and America will be a less-safe place because of it. But I say to the families, do not give up faith,” said Sen. Charles Schumer.
At the White House, President Obama called the Senate vote “shameful” but promised that the fight to reform America’s gun laws will continue.
After rejecting expanded background checks, the Senate voted down several other firearms proposals, including a Republican amendment to boost illegal firearms prosecutions and a Democratic amendment to ban high-powered assault weapons.
In a highly unusual move, President Obama allowed someone outside his administration to begin his statement in the Rose Garden.
Mark Barden lost his 7-year-old son Daniel four months ago, in a mass shooting at a school in Connecticut. The president briefly put his hand on Barden’s shoulder as he spoke.
“We will not be defeated. We are not defeated, and we will not be defeated. We are here now. We will always be here, because we have no other choice. We are not going away,” Barden said.
When Obama took the podium, the president, who is known for his cool demeanor, lashed out. He accused both Republicans and Democrats who voted against the bill of political cowardice.
“There were no coherent arguments as to why we would not do this. It came down to politics-the worry that that vocal minority of gun owners would come after them in future elections,” the president said.
The president went on to blame the National Rifle Association and other gun owners groups of distorting the provisions of the legislation.
“But instead of supporting this compromise, the gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill,” Obama said.
Afterward, an NRA statement said the bill “would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms … requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right”.
The legislation was a bipartisan compromise, intended to keep guns out of the hands of convicted criminals and the mentally ill.
Obama said he sees the defeat of the bill as just “round one” in the battle for tighter gun control.
“I believe we are going to be able to get this done. Sooner or later, we are going to get this right. The memories of these children demand it, and so do the American people,” Obama said.
Former rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot while meeting with her constituents in Arizona in 2011, stood next to the president as he spoke. Before the event, she sent messages on social media, saying the Senate ignored the will of the people.