"All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington," said Obama, delivering an angry speech after the vote. He said Republicans and Democrats had "caved to the pressure" and looked for excuses to vote no.
While he urged voters to rise up and pressure lawmakers, the path to new gun laws appears blocked.
In the Senate, Vice President Biden, an architect of the 1994 assault-weapons ban, presided over the background-check vote. Shooting victims and relatives of people killed at Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Virginia Tech watched from the gallery. A longtime advocate of gun limits, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), 89 and ailing, was wheeled onto the chamber floor for the first time in more than a month to cast his "yes" vote to a smattering of applause.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) kissed Lautenberg on the cheek.
Toomey sounded exhausted after the vote.
'Time to move on'
"The Senate has spoken and there's no shortage of other important challenges to deal with, so it's time to move on," he said in a telephone interview. "If the question is, 'Do I regret what I have done?' I have no regrets. I wish that the outcome had been different."
Toomey and Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) won over a majority with their plan to expand background checks to cover firearms sales at gun shows and online, but they needed 60 votes to thwart a filibuster threat. The final tally was 54-46. Five Democrats, including Reid for procedural reasons, voted no. Four Republicans voted yes.
The failure of that measure, a modest step compared with what Obama and others had first hoped for, exposed the limit of the momentum built after the Newtown shootings.
The December school killings had spurred pro-gun-rights Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) to support tougher background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, but in the end, few joined him.
On Wednesday, Casey again cited "the horror" of children slain in a classroom. "Every senator has to ask himself: 'Have you done enough to substantially reduce the likelihood that something like this won't happen again?' "
In a floor speech before the vote, Toomey called his plan a "commonsense" bill that would not restrict lawful gun owners. He opposes bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Polls have shown roughly 90 percent of the public supports tougher background checks, but gun owners have been an outspoken faction in the debate. The National Rifle Association promptly issued a statement applauding the vote.
Toomey's bill included tough language barring creation of a "gun registry," but he said the plan was repeatedly "mischaracterized."
"There are a lot of Pennsylvanians and a lot of Americans who have become, to varying degrees, distrustful of the federal government, and that I think is coloring people's opinion," he said.
Despite protections against a registry, foes kept raising this concern. They pointed to past calls for universal checks. "More background checks today, gun registration tomorrow. Who knows what will follow after this?" said Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.).
Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) added, "We should not start down the path to gun registration, as history shows where that leads."
Grassley and others said background checks would not have stopped the Newtown shooting, and he argued that criminals do not submit to the checks.
Records show that roughly a million gun buys were blocked by background checks from 1998 through March. Nearly 60 percent of those denials involved would-be buyers with serious criminal convictions.
Lautenberg, who has not voted since Feb. 28, was in good spirits, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), who tried to lift him for a hug. As Lautenberg left in a wheelchair pushed by an aide, he spoke briefly to reporters.
"I feel terrific," he said, "one hell of a lot better" - though his voice was weak.
Pam Simon, shot in the chest in the 2011 shooting in Tuscon, watched the vote from the gallery, along with other victims of loved ones. Simon called the result on the background-check bill "terribly disappointing."
"We are not going to forget this, obviously," she said. "More and more people are joining our club, sadly, and that's people who are survivors of gun violence."
Two women in the gallery shouted "Shame on you!" after the background-check vote.
Toomey and Manchin did garner support from a few senators who, like them, had long backed gun rights.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), one of the few Republicans voting "yes," for the Toomey-Manchin bill, gave an impassioned speech praising them.
"You may not win today, I say to my two colleagues," McCain said. "But I will say that you did the right thing."
Contact Jonathan Tamari
at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog, "Capitol Inq," at www.philly.com/CapitolInq.