Before the background-check vote, 240 women from 38 states flew to Washington on their own dimes to visit their senators’ offices. Their message, Fiore says, was that they were the “mainstream,” disgusted with the status quo. Watts met her senator, Joe Donnelly, a conservative first-term Democrat, and told him her group already had 3,000 members in Indiana. Donnelly was one of six senators with NRA A ratings to support the bill.
On April 17, the bill to expand background checks on gun buyers failed in the Senate, and the fatalistic shrugs in Washington were so numerous they were nearly audible. The legislation had been a modest bipartisan compromise, supported by 90 percent of the public and lobbied for hard by the president. A group backed by Michael Bloomberg had spent $12 million on ads pressuring senators to vote “yes.” When the bill fell short—by just five votes—it seemed to confirm a Beltway article of faith: There’s no point messing with the National Rifle Association (NRA). And that, many assumed, was the last we’d be hearing about gun reform.
But then something unexpected happened. Some of the senators who’d voted “no” faced furious voters back home. Even before Erica Lafferty, the daughter of murdered Sandy Hook Elementary principal Dawn Hochsprung, confronted New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte at a particularly tense town hall, Ayotte’s disapproval rating in the state had jumped from 35 to 46 percent—half the respondents said her “no” vote made them less likely to support her. In Pennsylvania, which has the second-highest concentration of NRA members in the country, the bill’s Republican co-sponsor, Pat Toomey, saw his approval reach a record high. One of the country’s best-known gun-rights advocates, Robert Levy, said the NRA’s “stonewalling of the background-check proposal was a mistake, both politically and substantively.”