Obama’s description — “a pretty shameful day for Washington” — captured the moment and summed up the frustrations that many ordinary Americans long have expressed about the capital, which is that the system appears tilted in favor of blocking action on important, if controversial, issues rather than enacting legislation to deal with them.
The proposal to expand background checks to sales at gun shows and on the Internet was sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), two gun rights supporters. It had the support of more than a majority of senators — 54 ayes to 46 nays — and it had the firm backing of the White House.
More significant, perhaps, in a polarized country is that the idea of expanded background checks received overwhelming support across the political spectrum. Nine in 10 Democrats, more than eight in 10 Republicans and independents, and almost nine in 10 Americans who live in households with guns backed the proposal, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Nearly all of them said they “strongly” favored the plan.
In the ways of Washington, that still wasn’t enough.
“If you ever wanted a textbook example of intensity trumping preference, this is it,” said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “You could have 100 percent of those polled saying they wanted universal background checks and it would still be defeated. You can’t translate poll results into public policy.”
Before the vote, the White House Web site displayed the message: “Now is the time to do something about gun violence. Let’s make our call so loud it’s impossible to ignore.” But those voices could not overcome the power of the National Rifle Association, the rest of the gun lobby or the procedural obstacles that are common in the Senate.
The NRA mounted a campaign to block the Manchin-Toomey compromise, and other more stringent measures pushed by the president and Vice President Biden, such as a ban on military-style assault rifles and limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The demise of the Manchin-Toomey proposal — the most significant restriction on gun purchases that had any chance of passing — represented a resounding defeat for the president, who had seized on the issue after the massacre in Newtown in December.
It was a defeat as well for the victims’ relatives, men and women who have walked the halls of Congress and spoken out passionately for action. It was a defeat for former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was nearly killed in a shooting in 2011 and who joined in the lobbying effort. They were at the White House with Obama and Biden after the vote, a tableau of hopes crushed.