President Barack Obama and his gun control allies say Senate rejection of expanded background checks and other restrictions won't stop their drive to reduce firearms violence. But their path to enacting gun curbs this year seems blocked by the National Rifle Association, and supporters of restrictions appear befuddled about what it will take to push legislation through this Congress.
The Senate planned to vote Thursday on two more amendments to a gun control bill. One by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., would cut aid to state and local governments that release information on gun owners. Another by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., would bolster federal mental health programs.
But just four months after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., the Senate proved unwilling Wednesday to approve the key elements of President Barack Obama's response to the massacre. Lawmakers rejected broader federal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, jarring gun control backers who thought Newtown would spur Congress to act and delivering a victory for the NRA and a defeat for Obama.
"I see this as just Round One," the president said at the White House, surrounded by relatives of Newtown's victims and badly wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Looking ahead to the 2014 congressional elections, he added, "If this Congress refuses to listen to the American people and pass common-sense gun legislation, then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters."
Obama blamed lawmakers' fear that "the gun lobby would spend a lot of money" and accuse them of opposing the Second Amendment's right to bear arms.
But opponents of the restrictions - which would have been the most meaningful gun curbs approved by Congress in two decades - said the curbs were defeated because they wouldn't have worked.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said most proposals were "predicated on one assumption that somehow we think that the criminal element will single out this one law to comply with."
Added Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., of the expanded background check plan, "This is the first step in the erosion of my rights under the Second Amendment."
The day was not a complete victory for the NRA. Senators defeated one GOP amendment requiring states that let people carry concealed weapons to honor other states' concealed carry permits. Also rejected was a Republican proposal letting some veterans with mental problems have firearms unless a court blocks them from getting the weapons.
But when the votes were over, it was gun control advocates who seemed most perplexed about what it would take to succeed. Though an AP-GfK poll shows support for stricter gun laws receding a bit, surveys have also shown 8 in 10 or more people backing expanded background checks.
"There's never been a bigger disconnect between where the American public is on an issue and where the Senate ended up," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
"Tragically, it may take more mass killings," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who helped craft the bipartisan plan widening background checks, said he would continue talking to other senators to see whether there were changes he could make that would attract their votes. But he conceded he had no answer.
"If I knew, we wouldn't be talking because it would have passed," he told a reporter.
No. 2 Senate leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., was among several Democrats who joined Obama in saying Wednesday's roll calls left them with an issue to take to voters.
"We're now in the world of Gabby Giffords and Mayor Bloomberg and organizations that are organized to come out and support those who vote for gun safety and oppose those who don't," he said, referring to wealthy New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been financing gun control efforts.
But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., expressed doubts.
"If it were a real effective political strategy, you wouldn't have seen a lot of Democrats from Southern states voting with Republicans today," he said. Some Western Democrats voted against restrictions as well.
NRA lobbyist Chris W. Cox thanked lawmakers for defeating the "misguided" background check expansion, saying it would have criminalized gun transactions between friends - a charge Obama and others called untrue.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns, financed by Bloomberg, called the vote "a damning indictment" of the gun lobby's power.
Wednesday's key vote came as the Senate rejected a plan by Manchin and Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., to extend background checks - now required for transactions involving gun dealers - to sales at gun shows and online.
The roll call was 54-46 in favor, short of the 60 votes proponents needed. Just four Republicans voted to expand the checks while five Democrats voted no, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who backed the expansion but switched his vote to give himself the right
to demand a new roll call in the future.
By agreement between GOP and Democratic leaders, all amendments debated Wednesday needed 60 of the Senate's 100 votes to pass. While all failed, all received more than 50 votes but two: the proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
"Show some guts," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the assault weapons ban sponsor, told her colleagues before the vote, knowing she would lose.
Emotions engulfed those watching the Senate as well.
When the background check amendment failed, Patricia Maisch, watching from a visitors' gallery, shouted down into the Senate chamber, "Shame on you!" Maisch helped restrain the gunman at the 2011 Tucson shooting in which six people died and 13, including Giffords, were wounded.
Also in the Capitol was Carlee Soto, younger sister of slain Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher Vicki Soto.
"We elected these people," Carlee said. "I have no idea whose voice they were speaking for today."