WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans backed by a small band of rural-state Democrats scuttled the most far-reaching gun control legislation in two decades on Wednesday, refusing to tighten background checks on firearms buyers or ban assault weapons as they spurned the personal pleas of families of the victims of last winter's elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
"This effort isn't over," President Barack Obama vowed at the White House moments after the defeat on one of his top domestic priorities. Obama, surrounded by Newtown relatives, said opponents of the legislation "caved to the pressure" of special interests in casting their votes.
An attempt to ban assault-style rifles went down, too, and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines faced the same fate in a series of showdown votes four months after a gunman killed 20 elementary school children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary.
A bid to loosen restrictions on concealed weapons carried across state lines also fell.
That last vote marked a rare defeat for the National Rifle Association on a day it generally emerged triumphant over President Barack Obama, gun control advocates and individuals whose lives have been affected by mass shootings in Connecticut and elsewhere, some of whom watched from the spectator galleries above the Senate floor."Shame on you," shouted one of them, Patricia Maisch, who was present two years ago when a gunman in Tucson, Ariz., killed six and wounded 13 others, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Vice President Joe Biden gaveled the Senate back into order after the breach of decorum.
The background check measure commanded a majority of senators, 54-46, but that was well short of the 60 votes needed to advance. Forty-one Republicans and five Democrats sided to scuttle the plan.
In a written statement, Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the amendment's sponsors, said after the vote he was disappointed and the debate wasn't over.
"I thank Senator Pat Toomey, along with Senators Mark Kirk and Chuck Schumer, for their support on working toward a balanced approach to fix our culture of mass violence," Manchin said in the statement. "Moving forward, I am hopeful that my colleagues and I can work together as we remember all the families who have suffered from senseless acts of violence across America.
"If we muster just one ounce of the courage these families have shown, then we, as a legislative body, can truly make a difference."
In the hours before the key vote, Manchin, D-W.Va., bluntly accused the National Rifle Association of making false claims about the expansion of background checks that he and Toomey, R-Pa., were backing.
"Where I come from in West Virginia, I don't know how to put the words any plainer than this: That is a lie. That is simply a lie," he said, accusing the organization of telling its supporters that friends, neighbors and some family members would need federal permission to transfer ownership of firearms to one another.
The NRA did not respond immediately to the charge, but issued a statement after the vote that restated the claim.
The proposal "would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution," said a statement from Chris Cox, a top lobbyist for the group.
Said Sen. Chuck Grassley, RIowa, "Expanded background checks would not have prevented Newtown. Criminals do not submit to background checks."
The events were unlikely to be the last word on an issue that Democratic leaders shied away from for nearly two decades until Obama picked up on it after the Newtown shootings.
Vice President Joe Biden presided over the Senate, a symbolic move since each proposal required a 60-vote majority to pass and he would not be called upon to break any ties. Democratic aides said in advance the issue would be brought back to the Senate in the future, giving gun control supporters more time to win over converts to change the outcome.
The day's key test concerned the background checks, designed to prevent criminals and the seriously mentally ill from purchasing firearms. Under current law, checks are required only when guns are purchased from federally licensed firearms dealers. The proposal by Manchin and Toomey called for extending the requirement to other sales at gun shows and on the Internet.
Their bipartisan approach was widely seen as advocates' best chance for winning enough GOP votes to change current law in a way that Obama and gun control groups support. But foes had proposals of their own, including one that would require states that issue concealed weapons permits to honor the permits from other states.