Senate Democrats shelved their gun control bill Thursday, saying that despite passionate pleas from families whose children died in December's Connecticut rampage, they cannot muster enough votes to pass any of the major new restrictions they had hoped for.
Instead, advocates said they will step up their public campaign to try to sway opponents in the short term, with an eye to reviving the bill later this year, and also will take a look at campaigning against gun-rights supporters at the ballot box next year.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he made the decision to "hit pause" after talking with President Obama.
"This will allow senators to keep negotiating," said Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, who vowed, "We're going to come back to this bill."
But he will have to see a major shift in opinions on Capitol Hill for that to happen.
On Wednesday, 41 Republicans and four Democrats joined together to block a plan to expand background checks to all private Internet and gun show sales. Current law only applies to sales by federally licensed dealers.
The Senate also defeated efforts to ban some semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The bans had been expected to fail — but it was the background check fight that disheartened Mr. Obama and his supporters, who thought they had found an opening after two gun-rights supporters, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III and Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, struck a deal.
After the defeat, the president had harsh words for opponents, accusing them of lying about the effects of expanded background checks and saying it was a "shameful" day.
Republicans fired right back:
"When good and honest people have honest differences of opinion about what policies the country should pursue about gun rights ... the president of the United States should not accuse them of having no coherent arguments or of caving to the pressure," said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.
And Democrats who voted against the background check proposal shrugged off the criticism from their party chief.
"I just vote my state," said Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who is up for re-election next year and who has been taking pains to distance himself from some of the president's priorities.
With the legislation on hold, the politicking began — and gun control supporters vowed retribution on Democrats and Republicans.
Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat, who has become a major gun control backer since she was shot at a 2011 town hall meeting in Tucson, penned an emotional piece in The New York Times vowing not to rest "until we have righted the wrong these senators have done."
"Mark my words: If we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities' interests ahead of the gun lobby's," wrote Ms. Giffords, who in January co-founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, a nonprofit advocacy group designed to back candidates supportive of gun control.
Organizing for Action, a nonprofit advocacy group formed from Mr. Obama's re-election campaign, also signaled it will join the fight.
"Those senators who decided that not crossing the gun lobby was more important than making our kids and communities safer — OFA supporters will call them out and hold them accountable to their constituents," Executive Director Jon Carson wrote in an email Thursday.
Liberal advocacy groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the California-based Courage Campaign are also targeting Mr. Baucus and the three other Democrats who opposed the bill, either with planned ad campaigns or threats to withhold financial support.
Mr. Baucus and fellow Democrats Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas are up for re-election in 2014. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota won't face voters again until 2018.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, told The Washington Times on Thursday that while the vote was certainly discouraging, the battle was not over.
"We're not giving up, but clearly it was an extremely disappointing day," he said. "So we're going to go back and we're going to keep working at it, and we're going to strategize as to how to get it done."
Before Mr. Reid pulled the bill Thursday, the Senate did find agreement on two amendments: One would penalize states and local governments that release certain information about gun owners and victims of domestic violence, and the other would reauthorize and bolster programs on mental health and substance-abuse disorders.
The underlying gun bill includes more far-reaching language on background checks and measures cracking down on gun trafficking and boosting school safety money.
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