WASHINGTON — Gun rights advocates on Wednesday celebrated the unprecedented recall of two Colorado senators tossed out by voters for backing some of the nation's strictest gun laws, saying their victory would scare off other politicians from voting to approve firearms restrictions.
Proponents of tougher gun controls insisted they would not retreat from their push to enact laws in the aftermath of last year's massacre that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
"You should not expect us to back down an inch," said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group affiliated with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg, a billionaire who spent $2.2 million this year in a single congressional primary in Chicago to aid a Democrat who shared his gun control views, donated $350,000 to aid the Colorado lawmakers.
Tuesday's election emerged as a referendum on gun policies, and political observers said the win by gun rights activists is a clear warning sign to moderate politicians in swing states to tread carefully.
"Although there are plenty of people who believe in strong gun control laws, it's still politically dangerous to support more restrictions if you are in conservative or swing areas," said Stuart Rothenberg of the independent Rothenberg Political Report.
It also will do little to revive congressional action on gun measures, stalled since the U.S. Senate rejected background checks in April. "We have turned the page on additional gun control" in a Congress focused on the Syria crisis and looming battles on the federal budget and debt ceiling, Rothenberg said.
In Tuesday's recall election, the first since the state adopted the procedure in 1912, Colorado Senate President John Morse lost his seat in a swing district in heavily Republican Colorado Springs by a scant 343 votes. Voters also tossed out Sen. Angela Giron, a first-term senator from a largely working-class district in Pueblo.
Both Democrats voted to expand background checks on private gun sales and impose limits on the size of ammunition magazines. Colorado passed the restrictions in March, within a year of the Newtown tragedy and a mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., that killed 12 in July 2012.
Officials with the National Rifle Association, who said they spent about $400,000 on the recall, said voter anger drove the election.
"The clear message that we get is that Michael Bloomberg is political poison," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said. "There's an increased resentment towards Bloomberg's tactic of coming in and trying to buy elections."
In a statement, Bloomberg pledged to "continue to fight for sensible measures that reduce the scourge of gun violence."
The election tested the political clout of a new crop of national groups, including one launched this year by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a gunshot wound to the head in 2011. Activists, liberal groups and others reported raising about $3 million to fight the recall, swamping the amount pro-recall efforts reported spending. (Under state law, the organizations active in the recall on both sides did not have to fully disclose the amounts they spent.)
Their financial advantage did not matter in the end.
Gun rights activists were unsuccessful in their efforts to recall a total of four lawmakers. Despite Tuesday's results, Democrats remain in control of the state Legislature, and the new gun laws remain in effect.
Experts expect a fresh round of political battles at the state level in the year ahead.
Overall, seven states, most of them Democratic-leaning, have enacted stricter gun laws since last December's shooting in Connecticut, said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at the State University of New York-Cortland and an expert on the politics of gun control. At least 10 have relaxed gun regulations, he said.
Wednesday, Missouri lawmakers gathered to decide whether to attempt to override a veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon of a measure that would allow criminal charges against federal agents who try to enforce federal gun laws. The House voted to override the veto, but the override effort died in the state Senate Wednesday night.
Pia Carusone, executive director of Giffords' Americans for Responsible Solutions, said her group, which spent $400,000 on TV ads in Colorado is "just getting started." Organizers are in talks in "dozens of states" about plans for gun legislation and campaigns in 2014, she said.
Glaze of the mayors' group said Tuesday's loss stung, but he warned against drawing overly broad conclusions.
Gun rights groups, he said, "cherry-picked" vulnerable lawmakers to capitalize on the anger among some independent and conservative voters with a state Legislature that has passed a slew of attention-grabbing measures this year — including a law providing in-state college tuition to students in the USA illegally and another regulating recreational marijuana.
The Democratic National Committee complained Wednesday that its opponents suppressed turnout by successfully blocking the use of mail-in ballots in the recall. Most Colorado voters use mail-in ballots in regular elections.
Dudley Brown, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, dismissed the complaints.
"This was a plebiscite on guns. baby," he said. "Unless you are in New York City or downtown Chicago, the message is: You are going to pay a steep price for voting for gun control."