18 Apr 2013

Obama fury as Senate votes down gun controls

This is a shameful day for Washington, President Obama declared – as his efforts to push through stricter gun control laws hit a brick wall in Congress.

Surrounded by families of the children gunned down in the Newtown massacre, with former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at his side, a visibly angry President Obama laid into a gun lobby he said had “wilfully lied”.

Senators narrowly passed a bipartisan compromise deal brokered by Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin, which would have imposed stricter background checks on anyone buying a gun – but it fell far short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.

And this compromise was the minimum possible requierment – all that was left from the far wider package of reforms which the president promised after Newtown.

Obama accused senators who opposed the deal of caving into pressure: “All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington”, he said. And although not every Democrat sided with the bill – four voted against – he pinned the blame firmly on the Republicans who managed to block the bill from progressing.

All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington. President Obama

But he promised his efforts were not over. “I’m making it clear to the American people, we can still bring about meaningful changes for gun violence as long as the American people don’t give up on them.”

He urged his supporters to match the strength and passion shown by the National Rifle Association, the hugely powerful lobby group opposed to any kind of gun controls.

And he castigated those like Republican senator Rand Paul, who suggested this week that Obama had been using Newtown families as “props” for his own political ends. “Are they serious?” he asked, “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?”

Gabrielle Giffords, badly injured when a gunman opened fire at an event in her Arizona constituency, said she was “furious”. She accused senators who opposed the new regulations of basing their decision “on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association.”

Blaming the gun lobby

Along with the defeat for gun sale checks, two other proposals for a ban on military assault-type weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines also failed to get the neccessary votes.

At base, what matters here is voters. On the face of it, given the prevailing public mood which remains strongly in favour of stricter gun controls, you might assume that senators would be more likely to support wide ranging changes to the law.

But not even the massacre of twenty children and six others could persuade them: not the appeals of victims’ families, not the estimated 3,485 people killed by guns since the tragedy at Newtown happened.

Three of the Democrats who voted against the Manchin-Toomey compromise all come from states where Obama lost to Mitt Romney in 2012: they all face their own re-election prospects, although two other representatives in similar states managed to support it, as John Dickerson of Slate magazine points out.

For the Republicans, though, continuing to block or actively vote down gun control laws is hardly a popular stance, and the party needs more popularity. Less than a quarter of Americans in a Washington Post poll believe the Republican party is “in touch with the concerns of most people in the United States”.

We return home with a determination that change will happen. Mark Barden, father of boy killed in Newtown massacre

Mark Barden, whose seven year old son was killed in the Newtown shooting, said supporters of background checks would not be defeated. “No one should feel our pain or the pain felt by the tens of thousands of people who have lost loved ones to senseless gun violence”, he said.

“We return home with a determination that change will happen. Maybe not today, but it will happen. It will happen soon. We’ve always known that this would be a long road, and we don’t have the luxury of turning back.”

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News