Senators dealt a devastating blow to gun control efforts Wednesday, defeating the background check compromise that was the centerpiece of President Obama’s post-Newtown push for stiffer laws and leaving advocates struggling to figure out what to do now.
The Senate also defeated efforts to ban some semi-automatic firearms and to limit the size of ammunition magazines. The series of votes showed that Congress remains bitterly divided between those who think the Second Amendment is paramount and those who say lawmakers must take any steps to prevent another school shooting.
Speaking about 90 minutes after the vote in the White House Rose Garden, an angry Mr. Obama called his opponents deliberate liars and said it was “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”
He urged voters to punish senators who voted to defeat expanded background checks.
“You’ve got to send the right people to Washington,” he said. “That requires strength and it requires persistence. I see this as just Round 1. Sooner or later, we are going to get this right. The memories of these children demand it.”
Mr. Obama doubled down on politics in other ways, blaming the defeat on the National Rifle Association and mocking arguments of opponents. At one point, he blurted out a rhetorical “Are they serious?” to the charge that he had been exploiting the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., by using its victims as props.
“The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill,” Mr. Obama said.
The president was surrounded by Newtown parents and former Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona, who was wounded in an assassination attempt. “It came down to politics,” he said.
The vote was the first major showdown since the December rampage, which left 20 schoolchildren and six faculty dead. The tragedy re-energized what had been a slumbering gun control movement.
They called for the semi-automatic and high-capacity magazine bans, but quickly realized that those were doomed to failure, so they shifted the weight of their efforts to try to expand background checks.
The background check amendment, sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, would have expanded instant checks to all Internet and gun show sales, but would have exempted in-person private sales. Law requires all sales by federally licensed dealers to undergo checks, regardless of how they are made.
The official tally on the Manchin-Toomey proposal was 54 votes in favor and 46 opposed — leaving backers six shy of the 60 needed for approval under the rules of debate.
The roll call would have been 55-45, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, supported the amendment but cast a “No” vote as a customary parliamentary maneuver, enabling him to demand a revote later. Of the 55 supporters, 51 were Democrats and four were Republicans. The opponents were four Democrats and 41 Republicans.
Opponents of the amendment said it would do nothing to stop gun violence, could infringe on the Second Amendment rights on law-abiding citizens and “would be a first step on the path to a national gun registry,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, Nebraska Republican.
Other Republicans said neither expanded background checks, nor the bans on magazines or semi-automatic weapons, would have prevented the Newtown shootings.