A controversial Democratic plan to ban dozens of military-style assault weapons was also defeated by a vote of 40 to 60.
The votes were a setback for President Obama, who angrily blasted Republicans for defeating the background check compromise, saying, “The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill."
“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” Obama said, promising that “this effort is not over.”
The raw emotion of the background check amendment defeat played out in the Senate gallery just after Vice President Biden read the vote count in his capacity as Senate president.
“Shame on you!” at least two women were heard shouting.
As they were escorted from the Capitol, Patricia Maisch and Lori Haas said they shouted in anger. Maisch successfully knocked a large ammunition magazine out of the hands of Jared Loughner in Jan. 2011 after he shot former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and other bystanders.
“They are an embarrassment to this country, that they don’t have any compassion or care for people who have been taken brutally from their families,” Maisch said as officers attempted to remove her from the building. “I hate them,” she said of the senators.
“We’re sick and tired of the death in this country and these legislators stand up there and think it’s a bunch of numbers,” said Haas, whose daughter, Emily, was wounded in the April 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.
“It’s a shame, it’s appalling, it’s disgusting,” she added.
The chief architects of the plan to expand the national gun background check system, Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) and Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.), acknowledged in interviews early Wednesday that their proposal lacked sufficient support.
After the vote, Toomey expressed regret, but said that it was time to move on.
“I did what I thought was the right thing for our country. I sought out a compromise position that I thought could move the ball forward on an important matter of public safety,” he said in a statement, adding later, “We have a lot of other very important issues to deal with such as getting the economy back on track, dealing with the debt ceiling and creating more jobs for Pennsylvanians.”
Before the voting began, Biden, who is leading the Obama administration's gun control effort, sounded quite frustrated with misinformation being spread by opponents to the bipartisan compromise Wednesday. Speaking during a “Google Hangout,” Biden reiterated that the proposal would not create or lead to the creation of a federal gun registry. “Nothing can be further from the truth,” he said.
Biden also dismissed suggestions that the measures would infringe upon people’s constitutional right to bear arms.
“There is no – zero – no infringement on the Second Amendment, not one single thing being proposed,” he said.
In the hours before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) also attempted to rally last-minute support for the bill by issuing an ominous warning to his colleagues.
“If tragedy strikes again…if innocents are gunned down in a classroom, theater or restaurant, I would have trouble living with myself as a senator, as a husband, a father, or grandfather and friend, knowing that I didn’t do everything in my power to prevent that incident,” Reid said.
Shortly before the vote, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he would support the background check plan, saying that while he was a staunch defender of Second Amendment rights, the bipartisan proposal is “not overly burdensome or unconstitutional.”
“Is this a perfect solution? No. will it prevent all future acts of gun violence? Of course not,” McCain said. “Would it have prevented the most recent acts of gun violence? In all likelihood, no. But it is reasonable, and it is my firm conviction that it is constitutional.”
In addition to McCain and Toomey, the amendment was supported by Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) The Democrats who opposed the measure were Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) The four Democrats face difficult reelections in rural states with strong gun cultures.
Democrats, fearful of lacking even just 50 votes in support of the background check proposal, called upon Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) to return to Washington for the votes.
Lautenberg has been absent in recent months as he’s battled the after-effects of cancer, but came to Washington Wednesday for the votes. Democratic aides had said that they would only need Lautenberg if gun legislation appeared in doubt.
In a dramatic moment, Lautenberg was brought to the floor by wheelchair. When a clerk called his name, Lautenberg shouted “Aye!” Democratic senators applauded, as did some people watching in the balcony above.
Reid said he would vote for the assault weapon ban proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.) “because maintaining a law and order is more important than satisfying conspiracy theories, who believe in black helicopters and false flags. I’ll vote for the ban because saving the lives of police officers – young and old – and innocent civilians – young and old, is more important than preventing imagined tyranny.”
Reid’s decision to support the ban is a notable reversal because he has maintained a close relationship with the National Rifle Association, which strongly opposes it, and because Reid had previously voiced doubts about the Feinstein plan.
In addition to the background check and assault weapons amendments, senators were also voting on a Democratic proposal to limit the size of ammunition magazines. Democrats expected the proposal would fail.
Also under consideration were a bipartisan amendment that would make minor changes to the bill’s provisions regarding gun trafficking and a bipartisan plan to provide more funding for mental health programs.
Four GOP proposals were also being considered. The first, by Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), was a package of Republican proposals that would improve the mental health classifications used in the background check reporting system. It was expected to include a proposal Grassley demanded that would prevent abuses like those reported in Operation Fast and Furious, a botched effort to track illegal weapons activity along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Another GOP amendment from Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.) would have allowed gun owners who receive a state-issued permit to carry a concealed weapon to take that weapon into other states that issue such permits. Only Illinois and the District of Columbia do not issue concealed-carry permits.
An amendment by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) addressed special concerns of veterans. For several years, Burr has sponsored a "Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act." The legislation, backed enthusiastically by Grassley, was written as a response to Department of Veterans Affairs policy of submitting the names of veterans to the FBI who have a fiduciary appointed to manage their financial affairs because of mental problems.
The referral meant that the veterans were placed on the background check list of those who could be denied weapons permits. Burr's legislation specified that only veterans designated as a danger to themselves or others would be placed on such a list.
Finally, an amendment co-authored by Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) would authorize suicide prevention and related mental health programs for young people.
Philip Rucker, Paul Kane and Tom Hamburger contributed to this story.