WASHINGTON (AP) — A visibly infuriated President Barack Obama surrounded himself with tear-stained parents of Connecticut school shooting victims Wednesday and declared it a "pretty shameful day for Washington" after the Senate rejected a measure designed to make it tougher for criminals to get their hands on guns.
The Senate, which is controlled by the president's own party, handed him a stinging first defeat for his second term by voting down a bipartisan compromise to expand background checks for gun buyers. The disappointment was all over the faces of Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, their mouths turned into deep frowns as they appeared in the Rose Garden shortly after the vote.
"The fact is most of these senators could not offer any good reason why we wouldn't want to make it harder for criminals and those with severe mental illness to buy a gun," Obama said. "There were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn't do this."
Obama vowed that the vote would not end his fight for stricter gun laws and was "just round one." But it's unclear where the White House and its allies on guns can go from here, after the Senate sunk their best hope.
With five Democrats voting along with 41 Republicans against the measure, Obama didn't spare his own party the blame. He said opponents made a political calculation that the gun lobby and a vocal minority of gun owners would come after them in the next election.
"Obviously a lot of Republicans had that fear, but Democrats had that fear, too," Obama said. "And so they caved to the pressure and started looking for an excuse, any excuse, to vote no."
The pointed accusations were a marked departure from Obama's "no drama" style. He's shown a lot of passion on the gun issue, even publicly shedding tears, but his emotion was previously appeared more rooted in sadness than anger.
He made persistent calls over the past few months for senators simply to allow a vote to honor the 26 victims from Sandy Hook Elementary School and those killed in other mass shootings. After that vote, he appeared before cameras flanked relatives of five children killed at Sandy Hook along with former Rep. Gabby Giffords, shot in the head two years ago while meeting with her Arizona constituents.
Mark Barden, whose lost his 7-year-old son, Daniel, introduced the president and said the families would return home "disappointed but not defeated," with determination that change will come.
"Our hearts are broken. Our spirit is not," Barden said, as Obama put his hand on his shoulder. Throughout the appearance, some of the parents cried and were embraced by Biden, Obama's point man on the issue.
Obama said of the families: "I still don't know how they have been able to muster up the strength to do what they've been doing over the last several weeks, the last several months. And I see this as just round one."
A senior Obama adviser, speaking on a condition of anonymity to discuss strategy for the issue, said the White House always knew that strengthening gun laws would be difficult and probably have less than a 50-50 chance of passing. But the president was deeply moved by the Sandy Hook shooting Dec. 14 and thought it was worth the effort since it hadn't been tried in over a decade, the adviser said.
The White House strategy was to move quickly, with Obama announcing his proposals just a month after Sandy Hook; have Biden stay on top of the issue with frequent appearances to key constituencies; and use the president to lift the debate up nationally at key moments by appearing with a broad range of groups including law enforcement, western voters and the victims' families. Obama purposefully stayed out of the bill's drafting in a recognition that he wasn't going to help by trying to insert himself in the legislative process.
The adviser said they never believed that senators would act because Obama asked them to, but the question was whether public outrage over Sandy Hook would be enough to move them. So Obama put the families out in front — appearing with them to give impassioned speeches, calling them out in an emotional conclusion to his State of the Union address, ferrying them aboard Air Force One to Washington for a lobbying campaign and turning over his weekly radio address to a grieving mother.
The frequent appearances led Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to accuse Obama of using them "as props, and politicizing people's tragedy."
Obama lambasted the suggestion. "Do we really think thousands of families whose lives have been shattered by gun violence don't have a right to weigh in on this issue? Do we think their emotions, their loss is not relevant to this debate? So all in all this was a pretty shameful day for Washington."