PRESIDENT Barack Obama’s push for tighter controls on guns was all but over yesterday after the Senate blocked a series of measures that would have expanded background checks on the sale of firearms, banned assault-style weapons and limited the capacity of ammunition magazines.
The president, surrounded by victims and family members of victims of mass shootings, said the National Rifle Association (NRA) pro-gun lobby “wilfully lied” to the American people.
After giving little attention to the issue of gun control during his first term, Mr Obama made it a top priority for his second after a string of mass shootings capped by the December attack at a Connecticut school that left 20 children and six teachers dead.
At the time, Mr Obama called the attack the worst day of his presidency.
“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” the president said. “Who are we here to represent?”
The fate of a larger measure aimed at lessening gun violence appeared sealed with the failure of an amendment – the result of a rare bipartisan effort by a handful of senators – that would have tightened background checks for gun buyers, expanding the checks to sales at gun shows and online.
Polls show a majority of Americans backed the move. Checks are already required for sales by licensed gun dealers and are designed to block sales to criminals or those with a history of mental illness.
The Senate voted 54-46 in favour, but that was well short of the 60-vote “supermajority” now commonly needed to advance most legislation.
The defeat in the Senate was especially stinging because the chamber is controlled by Mr Obama’s own Democratic Party.
Aware of Americans’ passions for the constitutional right to bear firearms, key supporters of stricter gun controls had made an effort to show that they, too, were gun owners and had no intention – despite the NRA’s warnings – of taking away guns that were purchased lawfully. The Obama administration even circulated a photo of the president firing a gun while skeet shooting at Camp David.
Families of victims of the Connecticut shootings joined Mr Obama on several occasions and privately lobbied legislators in Washington. “Our hearts are broken,” Mark Barden, who lost his seven-year-old son, Daniel, in the Connecticut shooting, said after the vote. “Our spirit is not.”
An attempt to ban assault-style rifles failed as well, along with a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, although those measures had been all but abandoned already.
Conservative tea party Republican Senator Rand Paul said Mr Obama had used parents of the Connecticut school shooting victims as “props and that disappoints me. After the vote an angry Mr Obama responded: “Do we really think that thousands of families whose lives have been shattered by gun violence don’t have a right to weigh in on this issue?”
Some of those parents watched as the gun measure failed in the Senate, along with relatives of victims from other recent mass shootings. Also watching was former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a gun owner who became a vocal gun control supporter after being shot in the head two years ago.
Ms Giffords, in a piece in the New York Times yesterday, said she was “furious” that the Senate blocked the gun legislation. She accused senators who opposed new gun regulations of “cowardice,” saying their decisions were “based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association”.