White House blasts Republicans for 'shameful display of cowardice' after Senate blocks new gun control measures

A gridlocked Senate struck down four separate gun control proposals introduced following the recent massacre in Orlando

Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Chris Murphy confer at a press conference on 20 June, when their proposals for new gun control measures were rejected by the Republican-held Senate
Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Chris Murphy confer at a press conference on 20 June, when their proposals for new gun control measures were rejected by the Republican-held Senate

The White House has condemned Republicans for a “shameful display of cowardice”, after the US Senate voted down four separate gun-control measures proposed in the wake of the recent Orlando massacre, the deadliest mass shooting in the country’s history.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said GOP Senators lacked the “courage” to cross the powerful gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Speaking to MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Tuesday, the morning after the votes, Mr Earnest said the proposals to strengthen gun-purchase background checks and prevent terror suspects from buying firearms were “common-sense” solutions that “should have drawn strong bipartisan support.”

Instead, the four measures brought to the floor on Monday – two from Democrats and two from Republicans – were struck down one by one in a hopelessly gridlocked Senate. “Cowards are people who talk really tough in the hope that they will not be asked to actually act,” Mr Earnest said. “Republicans have… spent the last week saying ‘radical Islamic extremism’ to anybody who will listen. But when it actually comes to preventing those extremists from being able to walk into a gun store and buy a gun, they’re awol.”

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was more concise in her condemnation of the results of the Senate vote, tweeting the single word “Enough” and a list of the victims of the 12 June shooting in Orlando, which left 49 people dead and another 53 injured at the city’s Pulse gay nightclub.

Days after the massacre, Democratic Senators staged a 15-hour filibuster to demand new gun-control legislation. But with a Senate comprising 54 Republicans and 46 Democrats or Independents (who caucus with Democrats), any such proposals faced an uphill struggle to attract the 60 votes they needed to pass under congressional rules.

The filibuster was led by Senator Chris Murphy, who entered the Senate in January 2013, less than a month after 20 schoolchildren were killed at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, his home state. He proposed an amendment to require background checks for all gun sales, including those conducted online or at at gun shows. The measure was supported by just 44 Senators and opposed by 56.

California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who also tried and failed to introduce an assault weapons ban after Sandy Hook, proposed a ban on firearms sales to anyone who has been on the federal terrorist watch-list at any time in the past five years. Omar Mateen, the Orlando gunman, was on a watch-list in 2013 and 2014, when he was under investigation by the FBI. Her measure, endorsed by the White House and the Department of Justice, failed by 47 votes to 53.

Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, wanted law enforcement to be alerted when anyone on the terrorism watch list tries to buy a firearm, and to have powers to delay the purchase for up to 72 hours. His proposal won a majority with 53 votes, but failed to reach the necessary 60. Both Mr Cornyn and Ms Feinstein had also introduced near-identical bills in December 2015, when they were defeated by similar margins.

A fourth proposal, from Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, would have defined what it means to be deemed “mentally incompetent” to purchase a gun. Mr Grassley’s measure would also have increased funds for the federal background checks system, but would not have closed the so-called “gun show loophole”. That too failed, also with a majority of 53 votes.

The votes split largely along party lines. Illinois Republican Mark Kirk was the only GOP Senator to vote for both Democratic bills. Mr Kirk, who represents Chicago, a city infamously afflicted by gun violence, faces a fierce re-election battle against Democratic congresswoman Tammy Duckworth. Three Democrats from red states also opposed one or both of their own party’s amendments, including Jon Tester of Montana, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who voted against Mr Murphy’s bill to close the gun show loophole.

Most Democrats criticised the Republican proposals as ineffectual, with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid describing Mr Cornyn and Mr Grassley’s bills as mere “political stunts”. Republicans, meanwhile, contended that the Democratic amendments were too stringent. Before the vote, Mr Grassley argued that Ms Feinstein's plan to ban those on terror watch-lists from buying guns “violates the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms”.

At a press conference, Mr Murphy said he was “mortified” but “not surprised” by the results. “We learned in the months after Sandy Hook that the NRA has a vice-like grip on this place, even when 90 per cent of the American public wants change,” he said.

After Sandy Hook, it took four months for the Senate to vote on any new gun-control legislation. After Orlando, it took less than two weeks. That, arguably, represents progress. But even if any gun control measures were to pass through the Senate, they would likely face an even stiffer test in the House of Representatives, where Democrats are currently outnumbered by 188 to 247.

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