HOUSTON -- Weeks after the Senate defeated a proposed expansion of background checks on gun purchases, the annual conference of the National Rifle Association has a celebratory atmosphere.
NRA members derailed "what looked like an unstoppable freight train," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Friday after taking the stage to a sustained standing ovation. "The target of their legislation is not violent criminals," he said. "The target of their legislation is law-abiding citizens."
Yet as the festivities began, gun-control advocates have been swarming town halls, organizing petitions and buying local ads to pressure senators to reconsider the measure that failed by six votes April 17. They also descended on Houston to protest outside the NRA event.
In Washington, the efforts inspired by the Dec. 14 slaughter of 20 children in an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., appeared to be gaining some ground.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who voted against the measure and then announced that he would retire, said in a statement this week that he would "evaluate" any new gun-control attempts. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who wrote the defeated background-check measure with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., told reporters April 23 that he is trying to craft such a compromise.
President Barack Obama will "press ahead" for legislation and will explore taking executive actions, his press secretary, Jay Carney, told reporters Friday.
Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry, a lifetime NRA member who has an A-plus rating from the group for his support of gun rights, used his remarks before the Houston gathering to criticize efforts to expand background checks. "While they may keep our president scoring political points, they do nothing but make it harder for law-abiding Americans to own guns," he said, drawing whistles and applause from the crowd. That "makes it easier for predators to prey upon the defenseless."
A new batch of polls, including some released Thursday, show that senators who favored expanding background checks are enjoying a bump in popularity. The approval rating for Mr. Toomey has climbed to 48 percent in a poll conducted April 19-24 by Quinnipiac University, up from 43 percent in March.
Those findings were in contrast to other recent polls showing a decline in support for those voting against the bill.
The NRA and other pro-gun ownership groups are countering, running ads of thanks in the states of their Senate supporters. The approximately 70,000 activists expected to attend the Houston convention are hearing calls for action from at least four prospective GOP presidential candidates: Mr. Cruz, Mr. Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
The test for gun-control advocates is whether they can sustain momentum and convert their fervor into political wins, either by resurrecting and passing a gun-control bill this year or by ousting its opponents next year at the ballot box.
The Manchin-Toomey amendment would have required background checks for anyone purchasing a firearm at a gun show or over the Internet. It needed 60 votes; it received 54. Thirteen senators who voted against the proposal are up for re-election in 2014.
In addition to agitating at town halls, gun-control advocates have purchased television and radio ads to criticize senators who voted against background checks. Americans for Responsible Solutions, a political group helmed by shooting victim and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., debuted radio ads targeting Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., the only senator from the Northeast to oppose the measure, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The NRA is running ads in New Hampshire to support Ms. Ayotte, and some at her town halls hoisted signs saying they are with her. The ad thanks Ms. Ayotte for her vote and praises her for wanting to shore up the mental health system rather than tightening gun controls.
In Houston, hundreds of NRA supporters walked through hallways where the group's "stand and fight" motto is plastered on banners and souvenirs. Conservative TV and radio host Glenn Beck headlines an NRA rally by that name today at the convention.