The president says it’s only Round One.
As families of victims of the mass shootings in Newtown, Tucson, and Virginia Tech looked on yesterday, the most modest of the gun control proposals put forward in the U.S. Senate could not muster the 60 votes needed to get over Republican opposition. A bipartisan amendment that would have required background checks of all commercial sales of guns (aimed at closing the loophole that had excluded gun shows) was defeated on a vote of 54-46.
Polls suggest that an overwhelming majority of Americans support background checks, but that did not translate into more votes in the Senate where Democrats have a slim majority. Four Democrats from conservative states voted against the measure: Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Heitkamp said in a statement that the background checks would “put an undue burdens on law-abiding North Dakotans” and said she would favor measures that focused on mental health policies rather than guns. “This conversation should be about what is in people’s minds, not about what is in their hands,” she wrote. (Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada also voted against the measure, but for “procedural reasons” that will enable it be taken up again at a later time. See technical explanation here.)
Overall, the votes were a dramatic victory for gun rights and the National Rifle Association. Only 40 senators voted in favor of an assault-weapons ban, and only 46 voted in favor of limits on the size ammunition magazines. In contrast, 57 senators voted in favor of loosening gun restrictions by allowing people with concealed weapons permits to carry them in other states.
In emotional remarks from the White House Rose Garden, Obama called the outcome “a pretty shameful day for Washington” and vowed to press on. Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son Daniel was killed in the Newtown shooting, also spoke:
“We’ll return home now, disappointed but not defeated. We return home with the determination that change will happen — maybe not today, but it will happen. It will happen soon. We’ve always known this would be a long road, and we don’t have the luxury of turning back,” he said.
Having learned in the first term the limits of his official powers when it comes to passing domestic legislation, Obama is trying a different approach. After his reelection, he launched a grassroots organizing effort called “Organizing for Action”, building on the infrastructure of his presidential campaign machine, aimed at mobilizing grassroots support for his legislative agenda. While some said yesterday’s defeat suggests the failure of his experiment, it’s simply too early to judge whether it will make an impact.
Obama has given every indication he will keep pushing to mobilize his supporters to put pressure on Congress. White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, said today: “I think we’re pretty close to a consensus on this just as about everywhere except in the United States Congress. And as the President alluded to yesterday, I think that is an indication of the pernicious influence that some special interests have in the United States Congress. And that is going to require a vocalization of public opinion to overcome it.”
But as he does so, Obama has to keep relations cordial with those same Republican lawmakers whose support he needs to pass his other domestic priority of his second term: immigration reform.
Yet it hasn’t been all defeat for the gun control lobby. Since the Newtown shootings, which left 20 children and six adults dead four months ago, four states have passed stricter gun laws. On the other hand, another twelve have loosened them.