Gun control advocates suffered a huge setback Wednesday as the Senate defeated a delicately crafted compromise strengthening background checks for gun buyers.
The 54-46 vote was six short of the 60 needed. While the vote can be reconsidered, the tally was a bitter reminder that even the most gentle of gun control measures faces a nearly impossible path winning congressional approval.
Backers thought this time might be different. The horror of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, where a gunman killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults in Newtown, Conn., was never far from the minds of senators.
Victims of gun violence and their family members were frequent presences in the halls, and they came Wednesday from Newtown, Colorado, Tucson and other sites of recent tragedies to watch the Senate vote. President Barack Obama made an unusually strong pitch. And polls show overwhelming support from the public.
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Supporters never let colleagues forget Newtown during Wednesday’s debate. “If tragedy strikes again – if innocents are gunned down in a classroom or a theater or a restaurant – I could not live with myself as a father, as a husband, as a grandfather or as a friend knowing that I didn’t do everything in my power to prevent it,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
But conscience meant different things to different senators.
Reid’s Nevada colleague, Republican Sen. Dean Heller, was seen as a potential swing vote for the background check compromise. He voted no.
“The onerous paperwork and expansion of federal power mandated in this legislation are too great of a concern,” he explained in a statement. “I believe that this legislation could lead to the creation of a national gun registry and puts additional burdens on law-abiding citizens.”
That was the opponents’ chief complaint. The background check provision was viewed as a mild form of gun control. Crafted by gun rights backers Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., it would extend background checks to gun shows and online sales but would exempt private transactions.
Manchin, a National Rifle Association member, pleaded with colleagues to back the measure and said on the Senate floor that the NRA had lied about the measure’s reach.
“There is not a universal background check,” he said, answering critics. “There is nothing in this bill that basically says that you’re living in a neighborhood, and you want to sell your neighbor your gun, you can do it. No background checks are required.”
Other opponents argued that the Manchin-Toomey approach simply wouldn’t work.
“We should not further strain the existing broken system by expanding the use of an incomplete database to more transactions,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. “We should fix the existing system.”
Grassley and Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, offered an alternative that would increase the number of mental health records entered into the federal background check database.
The Senate was scheduled to vote on a host of other gun provisions. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, tried to require states to respect concealed-carry gun permits issued by other states. Cornyn, speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, insisted that it wouldn’t establish a national standard for concealed-carry.
“What it would do is to effectively treat concealed-carry licenses like a driver’s license,” Cornyn said. “If you’re driving from Virginia to Texas, you don’t have to obtain a separate driver’s license for each state you drive through.”
But Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., drew a line at his state’s border.
“Concealed-carry is my greatest worry,” he told reporters Tuesday. “The good news there is, instead of needing 60 votes, we need 41” to defeat the amendment.
The Senate also was to vote on a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines long sought by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. She had succeeded nearly two decades earlier getting an assault weapons ban passed and launched a forceful renewed effort after the Newtown shootings, but by Wednesday morning, she had all but conceded that the push would not succeed.
“Not every issue we vote on in the Senate is a life or death matter – I believe this is,” she said on the Senate floor. “I urge my colleagues to stand tall and support this amendment.”
But few senators were present – one was Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat who was presiding over the empty chamber. She had said she planned to vote no on Feinstein’s amendment.