WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama, his face set with rage, stood in the Rose Garden surrounded by the families of Newtown massacre victims and former Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and asked how a measure to expand background checks for gun buyers -- one supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans and a bipartisan majority of the Senate -- had slipped away.
"The American people are trying to figure out," Mr. Obama said, "how can something have 90 percent support and yet not happen?"
The answer: The measure never really had a chance.
In the nearly 10 years since the expiration of the assault weapons ban, even modest gun safety legislation has proved impossible to advance on Capitol Hill, where the momentum has been in the other direction -- with lawmakers pushing various expansions of gun rights.
The 68 votes last week to allow the debate on gun legislation to proceed was a mirage, a temporary triumph granted by senators willing to allow shooting victims and their survivors the vote they sought, with absolutely no intention of supporting the final legislation and crossing the gun lobby or constituents who see gun rights as a defining issue.
While the opening vote provided advocates a glimmer of hope, the shootings in Newtown, Conn., the tearful pleas of the parents of slain children and an aggressive push by the president could not turn the tide. They were no match for the reason Democrats have avoided gun control fights for years: a combination of the political anxiety of vulnerable Democrats from conservative states, deep-seated Republican resistance and the enduring clout of the National Rifle Association.
At a moment when the national conversation about how best to stem the menace of guns in the wrong hands seemed to have shifted, it turned out that the political dynamic had not.
Republicans armed themselves with disputed talking points from the gun lobby about how a bill to expand background checks and outlaw a national gun registry was instead tantamount to a national gun registry. Turning the dispute from gun safety to gun rights, they took the Senate floor to denounce the compromise, even arguing with its sponsors, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., two NRA-blessed lawmakers who could not contain their offense. Mr. Obama on Wednesday accused the gun lobby and opposition lawmakers of willfully lying about the measure.
Yet unlike fiscal fights, in which there are clear partisan divides, just enough Democrats broke with their party to make a difference. While the measure enjoyed the support of a broad swath of Democrats, the four who voted against it were just enough to give Republicans the numbers for the bill's demise, along with the political cover that it was a bipartisan decision.
"It's dangerous to do any type of policy in an emotional moment," said Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat up for re-election next year, who voted with three other Democrats and 41 Republicans against the compromise measure. "Because human emotions then drive the decision. Everyone's all worked up. That's not enough."
In truth, the Democratic support for the compromise background check measure was slightly better than it might have been, with Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who faces re-election next year, joining in support of it, along with some other red-state colleagues who were iffy.
But after the vote for the assault weapons ban cost Democrats seats in 1994, red-state Democrats have steered clear of gun safety measures, judging that opponents' political fury would not be offset by support from those who favor tighter controls.
As for the NRA, while some saw the group's leader, Wayne LaPierre, as meandering and on defense after the Connecticut school shootings in December, seasoned lawmakers heard something far more telling: The group, which once supported new background checks, would no longer abide them. As a result, before a single hearing, bill or Senate floor speech, the legislation was in grave trouble.
Then the Gun Owners of America chimed in, attacking GOP senators who showed any interest in compromise, arguing that a national gun registry would arise from the bill. "We feel confident this will spell the end of gun control for the 113th Congress," said Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for the group, based in Virginia. "The gun registry defined the battle over universal background checks."
The Senate's rapid dismissal of what just weeks ago seemed the most achievable goal -- a measure to extend background checks to gun buyers not currently covered by the federal system -- sent the question of how and if to regulate firearms back to the states, where new laws both to restrain and expand gun rights are now fermenting.
The vote was also a warning to lawmakers who have embarked on the precarious bipartisan search for new immigration laws; while the issues are politically distinct, the process of melding a host of values on an emotional public policy issue can be easily derailed.
And the White House, unable to deliver 60 votes for a centerpiece of its second-term agenda with 55 Democratically controlled seats, enters the immigration debate potentially weakened.
The defeat of the gun control effort will test the financial and political prowess of gun regulation advocates, notably New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who have vowed to vigorously attack foes of the background check measure in the next election cycle. "We are equal opportunity when it comes to accountability," said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. "Republicans who voted no and Democrats who voted no will be treated exactly the same."