Huffpost Politics
Sam Stein Headshot
Jennifer Bendery Headshot

Obama Gun Policy Agenda Comes To Maddening End

Posted: Updated:

WASHINGTON -- It ended in a flash. Months of work aimed at revamping the nation's gun laws prompted by one of the worst shooting tragedies in U.S. history met an inglorious conclusion on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday.

Every single measure pushed by President Barack Obama -- expanded background checks, a strengthened federal gun trafficking statute, limits on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines -- failed to receive the necessary 60 votes to prevent a filibuster. By the time all seven amendments (including those sponsored by Republicans) had been rejected, family members of gun violence victims were left sorrowed, the president was left seething and advocates for the bills were left searching for explanations.

"I'm going to keep on fighting," Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), sponsor of the background check bill, told The Huffington Post in an interview shortly after the votes. "The only thing I've said is I cannot knowingly put a loophole in a gun show or an Internet sale just for the sake of getting a vote. I cannot do that. But if there is some wording that would prohibit someone from misinterpreting what we are trying to do ... I'm more than willing to listen to that and work with them."

The background check bill, Manchin noted, had been his "coming out party" in the Senate -- the first high-profile piece of legislation in his 2 1/2 years in the chamber. That it ended with a thud perplexed him.

"The pressure! Oh, the outside pressures," Manchin said of the forces that ultimately felled him. "I guess sometimes the trappings of being in elected office are overwhelming."

For the West Virginia Democrat and others, there was simply no good answer to the question of what could have been done differently. At least not in the immediate aftermath of the defeat The president had barnstormed the country and lobbied lawmakers on the phone. Allied groups had run ad campaigns and organized in congressional districts. One group had even injected itself into a special election. The administration's gun working group could have moved a bit quicker in making legislative recommendations. But only by weeks.

"I’ve heard the theory advanced that if he just moved quickly, Congress would have been forced to act," said David Axelrod, Obama's former top aide. "But I think the forces of delay would have taken hold anyway."

Democrats could have tried to trade the assault weapons ban in negotiations later, rather than discarding it as impossible to pass early on. But, as one leadership aide said, "No one would take it seriously as a bargaining chip."

In the end, the Senate -- where members from rural areas have just as much sway as their colleagues from heavily-populated states -- proved to be the cooling saucer it has always been, much to the chagrin of those who expected this time to be different.

Obama was "tremendously committed and emotionally engaged" in the gun debate, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who shepherded Newtown families through the halls of Congress in the days before the vote. And while the debate moved far over the past four months, he added, in the end "the NRA has exercised a stranglehold."

Speaking in the Rose Garden later Wednesday, Obama was far less courteous with his ire. Word had just come that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would pull the entire gun bill from the floor on Thursday. Surrounded by family members of gun violence victims, Obama called the outcome "shameful."

"There were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn’t do this," said Obama. "It came down to politics -- the worry that that vocal minority of gun owners would come after them in future elections. They worried that the gun lobby would spend a lot of money and paint them as anti-Second Amendment."

Hours earlier, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, the scene was somber. Those same family members trickled out of the Senate, their emotions ranging from disappointment to rage.

"I'm more aware than anyone in this entire world that background checks wouldn't have saved my mom," said Erica Lafferty, whose mother Dawn Hochsprung was killed in the Newtown shootings. "But background checks might make sure that another 27-year-old doesn't have to get buried."

Lafferty, whose eyes filled with tears as she spoke, was referring to Vicki Soto, a teacher killed in the Newtown shootings. Soto's sister Carlee was on Capitol Hill to watch the vote, too. And although she had conditioned herself for disappointment, she couldn't hide her sorrow over the outcome. Having met with a number of senators in the days leading up to the vote, she couldn't wrap her head around their reasons for opposition.

"It's too much paperwork. It's too time-consuming," Soto said, voice rising, of criticisms over background check legislation. "Time-consuming? The Newtown shootings took three minutes. You can't take three minutes out of your day to fill out a background check? That's nonsense. And it's disgusting."

Some people had gripes with specific senators. Pam Simon, a former aide to former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) who was shot two times in the 2011 Tucson massacre, said she was "extremely proud" of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for supporting the background checks bill. As for Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a close friend of Giffords who voted against the measure, she had to censor her opinions. Asked what she thought about Flake's vote, Simon only smiled and said, "That I can say into your microphone?"

"I reminded him that he has a poster on his office wall of 'Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,'" Simon said, adding. "He needs to re-watch that movie."

As lawmakers filtered out of the chamber, they commiserated with the disappointed.

Soto collapsed in tears into the arms of Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

"We're not giving up," Soto told him. "We're not going away."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) put her hand on Simon's shoulder.

"Don't give up and don't give in," she said. "The gun industry does not control America."

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) hugged several of those in attendance. "This is just the beginning," he offered.

Giffords, who sat in the Senate during the failed vote, told reporters she was still "optimistic” about future action. At the White House later, the president pledged to her and others that this wouldn't be the last legislative push for background checks during his term, an administration aide confirmed. Reid left the door open to revisiting the measure too, using a procedural motion that allows him to bring the bill back up if lawmakers want to take another crack it.

Still, there was little in the way of encouragement that anyone, even the president, could offer the family members, except the promise to renew the legislative fight later. The Senate was a stubborn institution, they all explained. And it might take changing its membership to pave the way for anything to happen.

"Until people start losing their jobs over these issues it is going to be very hard to defeat the NRA," conceded Axelrod.

Also on HuffPost:

Obama's Executive Actions On Gun Violence
Share this
Current Slide

Suggest a correction

Around the Web

Everything You Need To Know About Obama's Gun Violence ...

Obama: Senate gun vote marks 'shameful day in Washington'

Obama welcomes senators' deal on background check in gun bill