WASHINGTON - The Senate defeated a plan to expand background checks for firearm purchasers, imperiling President Barack Obama’s bid for new gun control measures four months after 20 schoolchildren were shot to death in Newtown, Conn.
Senators voted 54-46, with 60 needed to adopt the measure, as a handful of Democrats joined most Republicans in opposition. The vote was the most significant on gun control in 20 years and countered 90 percent public support of mandatory background checks.
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Speaking at the White House and surrounded by parents of several Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims, President Barack Obama placed the blame on Republicans and lobbyists for gun manufacturers for rejecting the measure in defiance of the will of a majority of the public.
“I see this as just Round 1,” Obama said in remarks from the Rose Garden. He told voters to “sustain some passion about this.”
The debate over gun control was reignited by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to kill 20 children and six school employees. Obama proposed a gun safety agenda weeks later, including a ban on assault weapons and size limits on ammunition magazines.
Those proposals were removed from the Senate bill amid National Rifle Association opposition. The nation’s largest gun lobby, which claims 4 million members, said expanded background checks wouldn’t stop further killings and could lead to a national gun registry. Federal law bars such a registry, and licensed gun dealers have kept sales records since 1968.
“Shame on you!” Patricia Maisch of Tucson, Ariz., shouted from the visitors’ gallery after the Senate vote result was announced. Maisch had helped overpower the gunman when then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head in 2011 in Tucson.
Five Democrats voted against the background check measure: Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Baucus, Pryor and Begich face re-election in 2014 in states carried last year by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Majority Leader Harry Reid also voted no, allowing himself under Senate rules to seek reconsideration of the vote.
The Senate on Wednesday also was voting on amendments that would add bans on assault weapons and large ammunition magazines, and allow people with concealed-weapon permits to carry hidden firearms into other states.
Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama opposed expanded background checks, calling them a “legislative misfire.”
“Who knows what will come next?” Shelby said. “These restrictions will not prevent the next tragedy.” Congress should instead focus on “glorified violence” in Hollywood, he said.
Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said the legislation is in the “feel-good category” and won’t prevent another Newtown.
Manchin spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday about the resistant Democrats and Republicans.
“I understand that some of our colleagues believe that supporting this piece of legislation is risky politics,” Manchin said. “I think there’s a time in our life that’s a defining time, when you know the facts are on your side and you walk into the lion’s den and look that lion in the eye, and tell that lion, ‘Not today.’ ”
McCain took the floor to applaud Manchin and Toomey for “political courage.”
“You may not win today, but you did the right thing,” McCain said. “Doing the right thing is always a reward in itself.”
Mandatory background checks for most gun purchasers are supported by 91 percent of U.S. voters, including 96 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of gun-owning households, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted March 27-April 1.
Reid said lawmakers who voted against the broader bill, with background checks, would be thwarting the will of the U.S. public.
“That is their right,” said Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “But they should not spread misinformation or sow seeds of fear about this critical anti-violence provision.”
The majority leader said he decided to vote for a renewed ban on assault weapons offered in a separate amendment, reversing his earlier opposition.
“Assault weapons have one purpose and one purpose only, to kill a large number of people really quick,” Reid said. “This goes well beyond the purpose of self-defense.”
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, in a statement called the vote “a damning indictment of the stranglehold that special interests have on Washington.” The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.
A group of gun violence survivors and relatives were in the Senate chamber to witness the vote, including Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily survived the mass shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2007.
“Reid is a smart man,” Haas said. If he didn’t have the votes, “Why wouldn’t he wait a few more days?”
The Senate legislation also would increase funding for school safety and set new penalties for gun trafficking. It gained momentum last week when Manchin and Toomey agreed on the bolstered background check plan.
Still, several Democrats from pro-gun states balked. Democratic leaders said they needed as many as 10 Republican votes to adopt the expanded background check measure. Democrats control the Senate 55-45.
The president has campaigned across the U.S. for his gun proposals, and he brought relatives of Newtown victims to Washington on Air Force One last week to lobby lawmakers for their support. Giffords met with Senate Democrats on Tuesday, and said in a statement Wednesday that the Senate “ignored the will of the American people.”
Current law requires background checks for gun purchases from federally licensed dealers. Manchin and Toomey’s proposal would expand that to include purchases from private dealers at gun shows and over the Internet. It would exempt noncommercial gun sales or transfers between family members.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas proposed an amendment to allow people with permits for carrying concealed guns to take them to other states, including those with stricter standards for issuing permits.
“I have a great deal of concern about concealed carry,” New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat, said earlier this week. “New York City is not Wyoming.”
Even if the bill passed the Senate, it still would face an uncertain fate in the House, where there is widespread Republican opposition. Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said he won’t make a “blanket” commitment to bring a gun measure to the House floor.