WASHINGTON -- The activists who launched an unprecedented campaign to impose stricter firearms regulations vowed Thursday to keep pressing Congress, despite a major congressional defeat this week.
They pledged to continue holding protests and rallies, vigils and petition drives.
“Neither of us is deterred,” said Mark Kelly, the husband of former Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011 outside a supermarket in Tucson, Ariz., where she was holding a public meeting. “When Gabby leaves the house every day to go to therapy, the last thing she says to me, it is, ‘Fight, fight, fight.’”
Their organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, and others that launched a national movement to tighten gun laws after the mass shooting of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., will continue the campaign by thanking senators who voted for the legislation and trying to “shame” the ones who didn’t.
“If members of the Senate will not do their jobs and work to keep our community safer, then we are going to have to change who is in Congress,” Kelly told reporters Thursday at the National Press Club.
But some lawmakers who opposed their efforts appeared to revel in the bill’s failure. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is facing re-election next year, used his campaign’s Facebook page to poke fun at the other side. Beside a picture of Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., it shows McConnell using his thumb and index finger to form a “zero” and it reads, “You can have this much gun control.”
For weeks, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden traveled the nation to rally support and pressed senators in phone calls and over dinners. Lobbyists roamed Capitol Hill, while armies of volunteers called residents and knocked on doors to drum up public support. Billboards were erected and television ads aired in key states.
The Senate defeated a sweeping package of legislation Wednesday night, including proposals to expand background checks on firearm purchases, reinstate the assault weapons ban, prohibit high-capacity magazines and increase penalties for gun trafficking.
In a pointed op-ed column published in Thursday’s New York Times, Giffords dismissed arguments from opposing senators as “vague platitudes.”
“I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote,” the former Arizona congresswoman said. “This was neither. . . . I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice these senators demonstrated.”
But Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who voted against a proposed bipartisan compromise to tighten background checks, said on his Facebook page that the measure “simply goes too far.” He said it would have expanded “far beyond commercial sales to include almost all private transfers – including between friends and neighbors – if the posting or display of the ad for a firearm was made public. It would likely even extend to message boards, like the one in an office kitchen.”
Gun control has been debated before in Washington, but never has it taken center stage the way it has following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.
“Guns haven’t been an issue for quite some time on the national scene,” said William Vizzard, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento, who was a special agent-in-charge at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “It’s the biggest hubbub on guns in a long time.”
Gun rights groups fought back primarily through news conferences, quiet meetings and swarms of lobbyists. Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the most powerful gun rights group, the National Rifle Association, said its strength comes from its 5 million members and tens of millions of supporters, who pushed senators with letters, emails, phone calls and appearances at town hall meetings.
“What our members did and did well was let members of Congress know where they stand,” he said.
But White House spokesman Josh Earnest alluded to the NRA’s efforts – without naming the group – saying Thursday that “attempts to mislead the American public about the contents of the legislation are unconscionable.”
Since the Newtown shooting in December, 45 lobbyists representing 10 groups have registered to lobby on the issue, according to records filed with the Senate.
They include big players, such as the NRA, and prominent gun control organizations like the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a large national coalition founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The Remington Outdoor Co., which bills itself as America’s oldest gun maker; the National Organization of Police; and TheTeaParty.net, a non-profit group that supports conservative political values, each hired a professional lobbyist. Dick’s Sporting Goods, a national chain that sells guns, and a group representing the Newtown families, Sandy Hook Promise, each hired nine.
Brian Malte, the Brady Campaign’s director of mobilization, said the group hired its first outside lobbyist in years when it appeared that Newtown might spur action. It hired seven lobbyists to supplement its two on staff.
“This time people are getting up off their couches and doing more,” Malte said.
In past years, gun rights groups have spent millions more dollars than gun control groups on lobbying. For example, gun rights groups spent $6 million on 44 lobbyists in 2012, while gun control organizations spent $240,000 on eight lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Similar records are not yet available for this year.
Since January, Giffords’ group, Americans for Responsible Solution, raised millions of dollars and attracted 300,000 members, said executive director Pia Carusone, a former top aide to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Carusone appeared with Kelly at the press club.
Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at State University of New York-Cortland, who has written extensively on gun control, said the debate has been more intense this time around, in part because of the influential lobbying role of Newtown families and crime victims, such as Giffords.
Still, that did not deliver a victory.
“These people have been extremely persistent,” he said. “Persistence counts for a lot, especially in politics.”
A glance at this week’s schedule underscores how hard-fought the battle became:
On Monday, the mother of a gun violence survivor delivered more than 1.3 million petition signatures in favor of legislation to Capitol Hill.
On Tuesday, the sixth anniversary of the massacre at Virginia Tech, families of victims from that shooting, Tucson and Newtown held a vigil while Giffords attended the dedication of a room at the Capitol named for a Tucson victim.
On Wednesday, a series of so-called stroller jams – a designated time when mothers went office to office on Capitol Hill with children in strollers on Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers – took place in Washington and at Senate offices across the nation in key states.
On Thursday, a flurry of lobbyists and volunteers packed Capitol Hill in the hours during and after the final votes.
“If it doesn’t happen this year,” said Erin Gormley, head of the Maryland chapter of Moms Demand Action,
“we’ll be back next year.”