49 Dead in Orlando Massacre Not Enough to Move the Senate on Guns

The number of dead may be higher, but the Senate seems just as intent at keeping everything the same.

Reuters; Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

In the wake of the Orlando massacre that left 49 people dead at a LGBT nightclub, Congress swiftly kicked into action, getting bills to the Senate floor before some survivors were even released from the hospital.

But just as quickly as those votes on provisions to limit who can buy guns and toughen up background checks came, they failed one by one.

Still, backers of stronger gun laws found a silver lining: true, the proposals went nowhere—but getting there took them a whole lot less time.

After all, the Newtown shooting left 20 children and 6 adults dead, and it took the Senate four months to vote on gun control legislation (which didn’t pass).

“This is yet another another sign of the sea change in gun politics,” said Erika Soto Lamb, a spokesperson for the group Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization formed in the wake of the Newtown shootings to push for tougher gun laws. “No longer is it acceptable to sit idly by during a tragedy. Our leaders are listening to the will of the people and taking this issue head on.”

And while the Orlando massacre left many Americans—particularly the LGBT community—grieving, shaken, and horrified, it didn’t change that fact. Senate Republicans opted not to cooperate with Democrats on their comparatively expansive proposals, and Democrats decried Republicans’ proposed solutions as so insignificant as to not merit dignifying with their support.

The Senate voted on four separate gun provisions Monday evening—two from Democrats and two from Republicans—and they all failed. There was California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal, which would give the Department of Justice the power to stop anyone on the terror watch list from buying a gun. That one got just 47 yea votes.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn’s plan would have let the FBI keep someone on the terror watch list from buying a gun if they could show a judge within 72 hours that there was probable cause to believe he or she was a terrorist. Critics noted that if the FBI had that good of a case on a person on the terror watch list, he or she would likely be detained already. That amendment got 53 votes, and needed 60 to jump a procedural hurdle, so it failed.

And then there was a proposal from Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who spent 15 hours on the Senate floor last week arguing for these votes to happen. He pushed for mandatory background checks on all gun sales, including those that happen online and at gun shows. This is basically the same thing Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey pushed for (unsuccessfully) right after the Newtown shootings. Murphy’s effort only garnered 44 votes.

And, finally, the Senate voted on Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s proposal to give more funding to a national background check system that’s already in place. It also got 53 votes, failing to clear a procedural hurdle.

It’s kind of a mirror-image of what happened in 2013 when Sens. Manchin and Toomey pushed for expanding background check requirements. The only difference is that that year, Democrats controlled the chamber rather than Republicans. But because of a procedural 60-vote requirement, neither party could change anything.

The routine was not lost on some senators—even the one that seemed to change her mind.

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Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican facing a tough reelection battle this fall, called it Groundhog Day in a floor speech shortly before the votes.

But she was the one member who actually did change; in 2013, she held the Republican Party line and voted against a background check proposal, but voted for tighter restrictions this time around.

We’ve seen this movie before, she argued; dozens of people get killed by a mentally unstable murderer, groups call on Congress to “do something,” a few members of the Senate sally forth with ideas, and nothing changes. She called the vote series an example of “typical political football” and said it leaves us “no safer, no smarter, no more successful in protecting our citizens.”

It was a reminder of how politically tough it is to limit people’s gun access. Top Democrats like to blame the NRA for this, with their open-handed campaign contributions and eagerness to melt Capitol Hill phone lines. But others take an even bleaker view—(or sunnier, depending on your opinion of guns): that gun laws aren’t changing because voters aren’t eager enough to change them, and that as long as there are more single-issue gun rights voters than single-issue gun restrictions voters, things will stay the same.

“Basically, non-gun owners do not vote on the gun issue at the end of the day,” said Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the NRA. “A few do, and they’ll be very vocal, but very few—whereas gun owners really care about this issue.”

Jim Manley, a former top communications adviser to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid who spent two decades on the Hill, concurred.

“The enthusiasm and the single-minded focus is almost always on the pro-gun side,” he said.

Groups pushing for gun restrictions are trying to change that. Murphy, who started working overtime on tightening gun laws after the Newtown shooting left 26 of his constituents dead, held an emotional press conference after the vote with survivors of mass shootings.

“I’m mortified by today’s vote, but I’m not surprised,” Murphy said, after hugging Erica Smegielski, the daughter of the principal slain in Sandy Hook. “We learned in the months after Sandy Hook that the NRA has a vice-like grip on this place.”

—Alexa Corse contributed to this report.