Sen. Dianne Feinstein had a lot of support in her push to renew a federal ban on assault weapons, including from law enforcement officials, hundreds of mayors and President Barack Obama.
Public opinion polls showed that a majority of Americans, if not an overwhelming one, were on the California Democrat’s side.
But ultimately, what she really needed was 60 votes in the Senate. And despite her earlier success in getting a ban passed and her reputation as a dealmaker, when the vote came down Wednesday, she only got 40.
It was a stinging defeat. Fifteen of her fellow Democrats voted against her and only one Republican, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, voted with her. On top of that, four months after 20 children and six adults were killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the Senate also rejected several other amendments to a broader gun bill, including a carefully crafted bipartisan compromise on background checks.
“It was a very disappointing day to me,” Feinstein said Thursday in a brief interview at the Capitol. “The safety of the American people is really the major issue in all of this. And it’s clear this didn’t help.”
She said she’d continue her fight, but it’s far from certain how she could get from 40 votes to 60.
“It’s abundantly clear that this is going nowhere, at least for now,” said Robert Spitzer, chairman of the political science department at the State University of New York-Cortland and author of “The Politics of Gun Control.”
Some Democrats who voted no said the assault weapons ban wasn’t the answer to reducing violence.
“I get the advocates and what they are looking for, but I think there are better approaches and ways we could address this,” said Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska.
In 1994, the original assault weapons ban was part of a broader crime bill that got 61 votes in a Senate then also controlled by Democrats. Seven Republicans supported it back then, and only two Democrats voted no.
Senate procedures haven’t changed in the past two decades, said Senate historian Donald Ritchie, but Senate politics have. There are fewer centrists and more hardliners. Party-line votes used to be rare, but now they’re routine.
“The parties are more internally cohesive,” he said. “It’s harder to create bipartisan coalitions.”
Getting 60 votes is a lot harder than it used to be, and some favor lowering the threshold on certain votes.
“I had always been a proponent of filibuster reform,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a leading supporter of stronger gun laws, told reporters Thursday. “I’m now a revolutionary.”
But even if it took only 51 votes, the assault weapons ban still wouldn’t have had enough support. The 15 Democrats who voted against Feinstein’s amendment Wednesday largely come from rural states with strong support for gun rights.
Some, including Begich, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, North Carolina’s Kay Hagan and Virginia’s Mark Warner, are up for re-election next year.
So is Montana’s Max Baucus, who voted for the 1994 crime bill that contained the original assault weapons ban. On Wednesday, he voted no on Feinstein’s amendment.
The defeat of all six Democrats would be enough to hand control of the Senate over to Republicans, and they were being watched carefully by the National Rifle Association and its allies this week on their gun votes.
But groups that favor gun restrictions have begun raising their own campaign funds – though it could take years to elect senators who are more favorably disposed to an assault weapons ban, and to defeat those who aren’t.
“If someone is willing to meet them toe to toe, it could change the dynamic,” Spitzer said of the NRA.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged millions of dollars to support pro-gun control candidates. Retired astronaut Mark Kelly, whose wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot while meeting her with constituents in Tucson, Ariz., has pledged to defeat those who voted against the background check amendment. That includes Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., whom both Kelly and Giffords consider a friend.
“They have a pretty powerful campaign message they can make just on background checks,” Spitzer said. “They have a real issue they can hammer people with.”
Although Flake isn’t up for re-election until 2018, there are two elections until then in which gun-control groups could have an impact. Close to 90 percent of Americans favor stronger background checks, and if fear of elections compelled some senators to vote down gun legislation this time, in the future, it could compel a different response.
“Time will make that clear,” Feinstein said. “We need to wait. We need to see what happens.”