Washington — A push by the White House and lobbying by the parents of children massacred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School failed Wednesday to convince the Senate to consider a relatively modest gun-control measure: An expansion of background checks for firearms purchases.
“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” said an emotional President Obama, standing in the Rose Garden with Sandy Hook families.
Connecticut’s senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, reacted with measures of sadness and anger, but insisted the fight was not over.
Senators voted for nine gun-related measures, each requiring 60 votes to clear a procedural hurdle.
But the first vote on a key amendment doomed the gun-control bill. A compromise on the expansion of FBI background checks of gun buyers failed on a 54-46 vote. The compromise was the best bet to get something through the Democratic Senate and, perhaps, the GOP-controlled House.
The vote prompted Patricia Maisch, a survivor of a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz. , to shout out from the Senate gallery, “Shame on you!”
After Maisch was escorted out of the gallery, she told reporters that senators who voted against background checks “have no soul.”
“They have no compassion for the experiences that people have lived through gun violence, who have had a child or a loved one murdered by a gun,” she said.
Relatives of the the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims also watched the vote from the Senate gallery, including Neil Heslin, who lost his son Jesse. He said the Sandy Hook families are not ready to quit.
“We’ll just keep going,” he said.
In a nationally televised appearance from the Rose Garden, Obama also said he is not ready to abandon the issue.
“This is just round one,” the president said.
He was introduced by Mark Barden, whose son, Daniel, was among the 20 first-graders and six educators killed Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook, a school in Newtown, Conn.
“We’ll return home now, disappointed but not defeated,” Barden said. “We return home with the determination that change will happen — maybe not today, but it will happen. It will happen soon. We’ve always known this would be a long road, and we don’t have the luxury of turning back.”
“Our hearts are broken, our spirit is not,” Barden said.
A visibly angry Obama blamed the gun lobby of using dirty tricks to dissuade senators from supporting a bill that he says “represented moderation and common sense.”
“But instead of supporting this compromise, the gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill,” Obama 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. Plain and simple, right there in the text. But that didn’t matter.”
The bill was a compromise drafted by Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Republican and a Democrat, each a gun owner with a strong rating by the National Rifle Association.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who voted “no” so under Senate rules he could bring the Toomey-Manchin compromise up again, also said efforts to pass new gun control laws would not end.
“The American people are on alert and paying attention,” he said.
Blumenthal, a Democrat who is Connecticut’s senior senator, said he assured Sandy Hook family members, “It’s not over.”
“And they said it me ‘it’s not even close,'” Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal also said, “Today is a heartbreak, probably the saddest day of my public life.”
Despite vows of keeping up the gun control campaign, the vote Wednesday showed it’s not likely to make headway in an Congress that requires 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate and a House that’s controlled by Republicans who largely oppose new gun control measures.
Murphy, a newly elected Democratic senator who represented Newtown as a congressman, said he was “naïve” about the Senate’s willingness to approve new gun control legislation.
“The fact is, senators are simply not listening to their constituents,” Murphy said. “Ultimately…they are going to answer at the ballot box.”
In an angry post on Twitter, Murphy said, “Cowardice on the Senate floor today.”
The gun control debate split the Senate and was often emotional.
“This isn’t gun control, this is common sense,” Toomey pleaded before the vote on his amendment.
But opponents argued expansion of the background checks, at best, would be ineffective in stopping criminals from purchasing guns and at worst would create a federal registry of gun owners that is now prohibited by current law.
“Criminals do not submit to background checks,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, called the Toomey-Manchin legislation “misguided.”
“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,” he said in a statement released after the vote.
The compromise, however, exempted people-to-people gun sales, thereby failing to meet President Obama’s goal of universal background checks.
The NRA’s assertions are “a lie. That is simply a lie, and anybody who can read knows that is not factual,” said Manchin.
Four Republicans broke with their party to vote for the background check compromise, Toomey and Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Sue Collins of Maine.
Four Democrats voted against the measure, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Begich of Alaska, Max Baucus of Montana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
The failure of Congress to approve federal gun-control regulations leaves states like Connecticut, which approved tough new gun laws, at the mercy of others with weaker ones.
“When the Senate cannot come together on an issue that is supported by the vast majority of Americans, there is little to no hope that common sense will prevail,” said Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy. “The members who voted against this proposal should be ashamed of themselves.”
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, the freshman who represents Newtown, said her constituents were ignored.
“I’m outraged and astounded that a minority of the Senate has refused to allow a simple up or down vote on a reasonable, commonsense proposal to enhance criminal background checks and save lives,” Esty said. “I’m astounded that they have ignored the voices of Newtown families.”
Other amendments introduced by Republicans and Democrats on Thursday also failed.
One that would have reinstated a federal ban on assault weapons sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was defeated on a 40 to 60 vote.
Another sponsored by Blumenthal that would have outlawed high capacity magazines was defeated on a 46 to 54 vote. But NRA-backed measures failed too, including an amendment that would have allowed someone who had a license from one state to carry a concealed weapon to carry it in other states.