By Mike Lillis - 04/18/13 05:27 PM EDT
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday said passage of tougher gun controls is "inevitable," projecting optimism less than 24 hours after the Senate voted down legislation central to President Obama's strategy to reduce gun violence.
Pelosi did not put a timeline on her prediction but suggested public outrage over the failed Senate effort will eventually force the opponents of tougher gun laws to reconsider.
"Something must be done, because that's what the American people expect and what they deserve," she said. "We're just not taking no for an answer."
Pelosi has a tough road ahead.
Pressured by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the Senate on Wednesday defeated a series of bipartisan bills designed to prevent gun violence, including a measure sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to expand mandatory background checks for gun sales. The gun lobby and other conservatives argued that the measure would erode the constitutional rights of gun owners.
The proposal — central to one of Obama's second-term priorities — was supported by 55 senators, five short of the number needed to defeat a GOP filibuster.
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Pelosi accused the opponents — who included Democratic Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) — of putting their own political careers above public safety. She lodged the same charge at House GOP leaders, who have refused to commit to a vote on tougher gun laws in the wake of the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 26 people, including 20 first-graders, were killed in December.
"It always makes me wonder at a time like this how important we each think we are, that any one of us thinks our survival politically is more important than the safety of our children, that we can't have the courage to take a vote," she said. "You're afraid of the gun lobby? How about the fear of the children who had to face that violence in the classroom?"
In the lower chamber, Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and Pete King (R-N.Y.) are pushing their version of the Manchin-Toomey bill, which would expand background checks to cover all firearm sales at gun shows and on the Internet. The bill is an extension of current law, which requires such screenings only for sales conducted by federally licensed gun dealers.
Both the House and Senate proposal would exempt transactions between family members and friends.
With polls showing that more than 90 percent of voters support universal background checks, Thompson on Thursday said the failure of the Manchin-Toomey bill is "unexplainable."
"If you're confused by the vote, like I'm sure the 93 percent of the American people who believe we should have background checks are confused, you're not alone," Thompson, the head of the House Democrats' gun-violence-prevention task force, said. "Because this is just unexplainable."
Pelosi said the Democrats' strategy will now be to seek additional co-sponsors for the Thompson-King bill while pressuring Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other GOP leaders to bring it to the floor for a vote.
Thompson said the vice chairmen of his task force met Thursday morning with gun control advocates and staffers from the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
"It's not going to slow us or deter our work," Thompson said of Wednesday's Senate vote. "When we see what happens with the other two Senate amendments [Thursday], then we'll recalculate ... and get our bearing."
The NRA was not always opposed to an expansion of background checks. In 1999, roughly a month after the shooting massacre at Columbine High School outside Denver, Wayne LaPierre, then the group's executive vice president, told members of the House Judiciary Committee that an extension of screenings to cover all gun show purchases is a "reasonable" policy for preventing violent people from obtaining guns.
"We think it 's reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show," LaPierre, now the NRA's CEO, testified at the time. "No loopholes anywhere for anyone."
The NRA did not respond this week to questions about why background checks for licensed dealers are an appropriate public safety step, but expanding those same screenings to private sales at gun shows and online would infringe on Second Amendment rights.
Pelosi, for her part, said the Senate's failure to pass tougher gun laws this week will only galvanize gun control supporters.
"It's disappointing, but it's going to energize the effort," she said.
"We have to shorten the distance in time between the inconceivable to some and the inevitable to us."