In an especially crushing blow to Leahy, the Senate even rejected a bipartisan measure he authored that would have cracked down on gun traffickers and straw purchasers. Cosponsored by Maine Republican Susan Collins and endorsed by the National Rifle Association, Leahy's amendment nevertheless fell two votes shy of the 60 necessary for passage. It had been expected to sail through on a voice vote.
As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leahy had been charged with ushering the various gun measures to the floor and securing passage of at least some of President Obama's priorities in the wake of December's deadly shootings in Newtown, Conn.
But to no avail.
Leahy did not immediately comment on the votes Wednesday. A spokesman said he would do so Thursday.
The centerpiece of Wednesday's debate was a compromise forged by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) to expand background checks to those purchasing firearms online and at gun shows. Though the amendment showed glimmers of bipartisan support last week, it garnered just 54 of the 60 votes necessary Wednesday.
Five Democrats joined 41 Republicans to oppose it, while four Republicans and two independents joined 48 Democrats in supporting it.
"To my mind it makes common sense to keep these weapons out of the hands of people with criminal records or mental health histories," Sanders said of the background check amendment after casting his vote in favor of it.
Though they did not wind up on the winning side Wednesday, Leahy's and Sanders' votes were nevertheless remarkable. Both have earned mixed records on gun control over the years and have approached the issue gingerly — fearful of upsetting gun-rights supporters in a rural state with a strong hunting culture.
But attitudes toward gun laws in Vermont may well be shifting.
A February poll conducted by the Castleton Polling Institute found that 81 percent of Vermonters favored extending background checks to gun shows, 77 percent supported banning high-capacity ammunition and 70 percent favored banning assault weapons.
Though Leahy and Sanders were cagey until the end about whether they'd vote for an assault-weapons ban on the Senate floor, both clearly decided to go all in on gun control.
"Nobody believes that gun control by itself is going to end the horrors we have seen in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., Blacksburg, Va., Tucson, Ariz., and other American communities," Sanders said. "There is a growing consensus, however, in Vermont and across America that we have got to do as much as we can to end the cold-blooded, mass murders of innocent people."
UPDATE: Leahy released the following statement Thursday afternoon:
"The Senate has cast aside the views of the vast majority of Americans who support commonsense steps to improve gun safety, and we can only imagine the sense of abandonment felt by the parents of Sandy Hook's children and by the many other victims of senseless gun violence.
"This has not been the Senate’s finest hour.
"I have such great respect and appreciation for the Senate's special role in our system of government. I have seen the Senate rise up in courage and conviction and bipartisanship to meet the nation's most urgent needs. On those occasions, the Senate has become the conscience of the nation. It is a painful disappointment to acknowledge that the Senate has not risen to this moment and to this challenge.
"Brazen distortions have been used to scare law-abiding gun owners and to bend politicians to the will of well-funded and ‘win’-at-any-cost special interests. Purposely misleading scare tactics have been used that are upside down of the clear facts.
"As a Vermonter and a gun owner I know that responsible gun owners in Vermont understand the value of taking such sensible steps as closing loopholes in the existing background check system or making it more difficult for people to traffic weapons to drug cartels and other criminals."