WASHINGTON – Compromise legislation to expand mandatory background checks for gun sales—a key element of the federal response to the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn. – failed Wednesday afternoon in the US Senate.
The inability of President Obama and Democratic leaders to round up the required 60 votes in favor of enhanced background checks dealt a striking defeat to a major initiative of the president’s second term, falling short despite numerous pleas and trips to Washington by families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims, whose children were murdered five months ago by a lone gunman with a semi-automatic assault rifle.
The Senate voted Wednesday afternoon to block the first of nine amendments to Obama’s gun control bill, a compromise forged between senators Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania to expand background checks for gun buyers.
Despite the bipartisan negotiations, the amendment failed when only 54 senators voted to proceed, falling six votes short. All New England senators voted yes except for Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire.
“Shame on you!” a spectator in the gallery yelled out in the chamber, prompting a gavel for order.
Erica Lafferty, 27, the daughter of Dawn Hochsprung, principal of Sandy Hook who lost her life in the shooting, said she was disappointed by the vote “but the fact that it got to the floor is good.”
“I’m confident that it will be back, and I also know that I will be here when it does come back,” Lafferty said. “We’re not going away.”
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, praised Manchin and Toomey for their efforts during the debate preceding the series of votes.
“You did the right thing,” McCain said. “What they have tried to do today I think is an act that should be appreciated by those of us who many times avoid taking the tough decisions.”
Senator Christopher Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat in favor of gun control, spoke out against the outsized influence of the gun lobby.
“The longer that I’ve spent in this place, the more I’m convinced that there are people who actually do believe that we should just go back to the days of the wild, wild west,” Murphy said, “that we should usher in a new era of gun control Darwinism in which the good guys have guns, the bad guns, and we just hope that the good guys shoot the bad guys.”
Because of senate procedural rules, a 60-vote threshhold was required for each of the nine amendments to proceed. The other amendments include an assault weapons ban and limits on high capacity magazines.
The gun debate has been marked by intense lobbying on both sides, big-spending influence campaigns targeting individual senators, and some vitriolic attacks, particularly by some groups opposed to firearms restrictions.
Groups beyond the National Rifle Association, the traditional representative of the gun lobby, have played a major role in the debate. The National Association for Gun Rights used email alerts, online videos, and a Facebook page to convey mocking imagery that targeted individual senators.
In a series of Facebook posts, the group showed Obama as a puppeteer, controlling the strings of Toomey. Stamped in red ink is, “Toomey Sold Out Your Gun Rights.”
The gun rights group similarly depicted all 16 Republicans who voted last week to prevent a GOP filibuster and move forward on the gun legislation debate. The 16 also are shown with their faces on sticks, tagged by Facebook users with unfriendly names. Senator Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, is “Socialist.” Senator Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, is “communist #9.” Senator John Hoeven, of South Dakota, is “Judas Bastard.”
Senator Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, is “liberal [expletive] 1” while Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, is “liberal [expletive] 2.”
Polls show that nearly 90 percent of Americans support a strong system of background checks for gun purchases. But the looming failure of gun-control legislation illustrates how vocal minorities are exerting strong influence on congressional debates by targeting individual senators with outside pressure, channeled through Internet organizing.
Some of that organizing directly targets senators who seek compromise.
“NO DEALS, NO GUN CONTROL,” the National Association for Gun Rights blasts on its website.
Few have experienced as much heat as Collins, a Maine Republican who has built a reputation for being moderate and open to compromise. A host of groups in recent days have taken out ads in Maine trying to win her over, including groups supporting gun-control legislation.
Organizing for Action, an offshoot of President Obama’s campaign network, ran an ad Friday on the Bangor Daily News website with this message: “Tell Senator Collins: It’s time to close background check loopholes.” That ad came a day after a full-page ad from the National Rifle Association that asked, “Will Obama’s gun control proposals actually work? His own experts say, ‘No.’”
The group on Monday posted a doctored and unflattering photo of Collins with her eyes bulging as if she were a zombie. Within an hour, 5,413 people liked it on Facebook and 490 people had commented on it.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, Wednesday morning criticized the president for using the Newtown, Conn., families “as props.”
At a breakfast with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, he said the legislation would not have prevented the Sandy Hook shootings, and he criticized the vote as being mostly for show.
“A lot of things in Washington are window dressing, it’s a dog and pony show, it’s a parade, it’s theatrics, it’s histrionics, all to show people that something bad happened — which it did. Something terribly tragic happened,” he said.
But, he added, “None of the proposals really would have addressed the tragedy.”