WASHINGTON -- Shortly after the Senate voted down every major plank of gun policy reform that had been proposed on Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama met privately with a group of people affected by gun violence in the Roosevelt Room inside the West Wing.
In attendance were former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and family members of those killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Many were seething from the scene they had just witnessed on Capitol Hill. All were saddened. The president was scheduled to walk out to the Rose Garden in minutes to address the vote, a stinging rebuke to an agenda he had forcefully pushed for the past few months. Those in attendance would join him at the podium.
Before he left, however, he made them a promise. He pledged that this would not be the last push for gun policy reform, an administration official told The Huffington Post. Down the road, during the course of his second term, the legislation would be revisited and they would pick up the fight again.
Gun control advocates woke up Thursday morning still licking their wounds over the Senate's rejection of a bill to expand background checks for gun purchases, among other reforms. But while it provided little solace, their attention had already turned to transforming a legislative defeat into a campaign cudgel. The 2014 elections may be a year and a half away, but one of the chief fault lines has now been drawn.
"We’re going to take the long view in this fight," said Mark Kelly, Giffords’ husband and the co-founder of Americans for Responsible Solutions, their gun control group. "We’re going continue to talk about common-sense solutions that respect our Second Amendment rights ... We’re going to make sure that people all over the country know how their senator voted on this."
He isn’t wasting any time, either. In the coming days, Kelly said, his group will go up with new ads thanking a handful of senators for defying expectations by supporting expanded background checks. Among the lawmakers likely to benefit are Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).
There would be sticks to go along with the carrots, of course. One lawmaker Kelly said he would target over his vote is his home-state senator Jeff Flake, who is friends with Giffords. Kelly started by taunting the Arizona Republican on Twitter Thursday.
“@JeffFlake heard u say on FOX 'I think all of us want to keep guns out of the hand of criminals & those with mental illness. We can do it,'” Kelly tweeted.
He followed up later: “@JeffFlake I'm confused, friend. You had that chance yesterday. Want to rethink and join me and Gabby in making Arizona safer?”
Flake didn’t tweet a message back.
Electoral threats are easy to make and hard to execute, especially in a midterm contest with a number of moderate Senate Democrats on the ballot. If this weren't the case, the background check legislation likely would have passed on Wednesday. After all, there were plenty of efforts to persuade more than 60 senators that it was in their political self-interest to back the bill. The president barnstormed in support of it; gun control groups took out ads targeting lawmakers; outside groups -- including the Obama-allied Organizing for Action -- encouraged voters to lobby their lawmakers; and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent millions to defeat an NRA-backed candidate in special election for a vacated House seat.
But the bill failed, leading advocates to the secondary conclusion: members of Congress needed the threat of unemployment.
"The first instinct of politicians is survival and most of them aren’t willing for any cause to throw themselves on the sword," said David Axelrod, Obama's former top adviser. "Until people start losing their jobs over these issues it is going to be very hard to defeat the NRA."
One idea of how to revamp the gun control debates was put forward by Axelrod's former colleague, David Plouffe, in a tweet following the Senate vote. It would be possible, he mused, for someone to compile data on gun sales that would have been stopped had expanded background checks been in place, and the lives that may have been saved as a result.
In a follow up email to the Huffington Post, Plouffe noted that privacy concerns could complicate the data collection process. But it wouldn't take long to create a large enough sample to demonstrate what background checks could actually accomplish.
"I think we should do that," Axelrod said. "Nobody should be able to hide the next time something happens. Clearly there are people trying to do something about this problem and people who refuse to do something about this problem."
"I don’t want to see any mournful press releases from senators who voted against this legislation the next time there is a mass murder," he added. "They don’t have moral standing to engage on these issues."