WASHINGTON -- The activists who launched an unprecedented campaign to impose stricter firearms regulations vowed Thursday to keep pressing Congress, despite a major congressional defeat this week. They pledged to continue holding protests and rallies, vigils and petition drives.
"Neither of us is deterred," said Mark Kelly, husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot in 2011 outside a supermarket in Tucson, Ariz., where she was holding a public meeting. "When Gabby leaves the house every day to go to therapy, the last thing she says to me, it is, 'Fight, fight, fight.' "
Their group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, and others that launched a national movement to tighten gun laws after the mass shooting of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., will continue their campaign by thanking senators who voted for the legislation and trying to "shame" the ones who didn't.
"If members of the Senate will not do their jobs and work to keep our community safer, then we are going to have to change who is in Congress," Mr. Kelly said Thursday at the National Press Club.
But some lawmakers who opposed their efforts appeared to revel in the bill's failure. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is facing re-election next year, used his campaign's Facebook page to poke fun at the other side. Beside a picture of Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., it shows Mr. McConnell using his thumb and index finger to form a "zero," and it reads, "You can have this much gun control."
For weeks, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden traveled the nation to rally support and pressed senators in phone calls and over dinners. Lobbyists roamed Capitol Hill, while armies of volunteers called residents and knocked on doors to drum up public support. Billboards were erected and television ads aired in key states.
The Senate defeated a sweeping legislative package Wednesday night, including proposals to expand background checks on firearm purchases, reinstate the assault weapons ban, bar high-capacity magazines and increase penalties for gun trafficking.
In a pointed op-ed column published Thursday in The New York Times, Ms. Giffords dismissed arguments from opposing senators as "vague platitudes." She wrote: "I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. ... I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice these senators demonstrated."
But Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who voted against a proposed bipartisan compromise to tighten background checks, said on his Facebook page that the measure "simply goes too far." He said it would have expanded "far beyond commercial sales to include almost all private transfers -- including between friends and neighbors -- if the posting or display of the ad for a firearm was made public. It would likely even extend to message boards, like the one in an office kitchen."
Gun control has been debated before in Washington, but never has it taken center stage as it has since December's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Gun rights groups fought back primarily through news conferences, quiet meetings and swarms of lobbyists. Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the most powerful gun rights group, the National Rifle Association, said its strength comes from its 5 million members and tens of millions of supporters, who pushed senators with letters, e-mails, phone calls and appearances at town hall meetings. "What our members did and did well was let members of Congress know where they stand," he said.
But White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday alluded to the NRA efforts, without naming the group: "Attempts to mislead the American public about the contents of the legislation are unconscionable."
Since the Newtown shooting in December, 45 lobbyists representing 10 groups have registered to lobby on the issue, according to records filed with the Senate. They include big players, such as the NRA, and prominent gun control organizations such as the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a large national coalition founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The Remington Outdoor Co., which bills itself as America's oldest gun maker; the National Organization of Police; and TheTeaParty.net, a nonprofit group that supports conservative political values, each hired a professional lobbyist. Dick's Sporting Goods, a national chain that sells guns, and a group representing the Newtown families, Sandy Hook Promise, each hired nine.
Brian Malte, the Brady Campaign's director of mobilization, said the group hired its first outside lobbyist in years when it appeared that Newtown might spur action. It hired seven lobbyists to supplement its two on staff. "This time people are getting up off their couches and doing more," Mr. Malte said.
In past years, gun rights groups have spent millions more dollars than gun control groups on lobbying. For example, gun rights groups spent $6 million on 44 lobbyists in 2012, while gun control organizations spent $240,000 on eight lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Similar records are not yet available for this year.
Since January, Ms. Giffords' group raised millions of dollars and attracted 300,000 members, said executive director Pia Carusone, a former top aide to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She appeared with Mr. Kelly at the press club.
Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at State University of New York-Cortland, who has written extensively on gun control, said the debate has been more intense this time around, in part because of the influential lobbying role of Newtown families and crime victims, such as Ms. Giffords. Still, that did not deliver a victory.
"If it doesn't happen this year," said Erin Gormley, head of the Maryland chapter of Moms Demand Action, "we'll be back next year."