The legislation, written by Toomey and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), was the centerpiece of gun control efforts in the wake of the Newtown, Conn. shootings. It was supposed to be the breakthrough that led to the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. But it only picked up a few senators and hardened the opposition of many. A last-ditch effort by Democrats to win over skeptical senators by offering new concessions fell apart late Tuesday.
About nine out of 10 Americans support universal background checks, according to polls. The failed vote reflects the enduring power of the National Rifle Association, which opposed the bill and threatened to target lawmakers who voted in its favor.
"Today, the misguided Manchin-Toomey-Schumer proposal failed in the U.S. Senate," the NRA's top lobbyist Chris Cox said in a statement issued immediately after the vote. "As we have noted previously, expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools."
Centrist senators who were courted eventually revealed their opposition to the proposal this week, making it all but clear by Wednesday that it lacked the votes to pass. Opponents voiced gripes ranging from an alleged infringement on Second Amendment rights to the more far-reaching -- and inaccurate -- claim that the legislation would set up a national gun registry.
Eight other amendments were still set to be voted on, including a Democratic bill to ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, and a Republican substitute that aims to address federal trafficking, mental health and school safety.
The 60-vote threshold was agreed to in part to avoid wasted floor time for what would be an inevitable filibuster on background checks and other amendments. Democrats also did not want to hold a 51-vote threshold for a sweeping GOP measure to expand concealed carry rights, for fear that it would pass and poison the underlying legislation.
This article was updated at 4:40 P.M.