An unprecedented occupation of the floor of the House of Representatives by Democrats demanding action on various gun control measures continued into its second day on Thursday before Speaker Paul Ryan called a recess until July 5. Democratic members of Congress vowed to continue their efforts after the break.
During the sometimes chaotic sit-in, Ryan ordered C-Span to turn off its cameras, forcing the broadcaster to host live feeds from members’ cell phones, and Democrats thwarted an attempt by Republicans to shut down the sit-in with a series of late-night votes. According to CNN, when Capitol police asked Democrats to clear the floor for a daily security sweep, Nancy Pelosi replied, “That’s not going to happen,” and continued speaking.
Other highlights included Representative Louie Gohmert interrupting the proceedings to shout “radical Islam!” several times.
The Nation spoke by phone with Representative Alan Grayson, whose district is located near the site of last week’s brutal massacre in Orlando, during the 25th hour of the sit-in.
“This is a very inspirational moment for Democrats,” he said. “We have occupied the House floor, and we don’t plan to allow the House to do its business until the people’s business is done. We’re not going to sit down, we’re not going to shut up. We’re going to keep talking until there’s a vote on what America wants to see resolved.”
Civil-liberties advocates have criticized what most media outlets reported as the bill in question—the “No Fly/No-Buy Act,” which would bar individuals who are listed on the government’s “No-Fly List” or its “Selectee List” from purchasing firearms. At Gawker, Alex Pareene wrote, “The no-fly list is a civil rights disaster by every conceivable standard. It is secret, it disproportionately affects Arab-Americans, it is error-prone, there is no due process or effective recourse for people placed on the list, and it constantly and relentlessly expands.”
Grayson rejected the idea that the sit-in was only in support of the No Fly/No-Buy Act, which, according to The New York Times, would prevent 2,700 US citizens from purchasing firearms. Grayson, who interrupted our interview when it was his turn to speak on the floor and used his time to talk about his proposed assault-weapons ban, said that he and his colleagues were insisting on a vote on both No Fly/No-Buy, and another bill that would strengthen the background-check system and close loopholes that allow people to buy firearms online or at gun shows without a background check.
So why did many outlets not mention that other measure? Grayson:
The media almost universally failed to report anything for the first 12 hours of this event. Go figure. It’s unprecedented, and yet, there was a media blackout because Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton two names. Suddenly, all other media coverage came to an end. Nothing else mattered in the world for several hours.
And on the substance of concerns for civil liberties:
I’ll tell you that internally, we discuss the civil-liberties issues all the time. It’s not something that people here are unfamiliar with. The fact is, we are sensitive to that, but we’re also sensitive to the fact that we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
You have to think of this in terms of false negatives and false positives. A false positive is a circumstance where somebody is kept from getting a gun who should be able to get a gun. What’s the worst thing that happens in that regard? Then that person, I guess, can’t go hunting. That’s the worst thing that happens. The person can’t go hunting. Maybe he can’t go into his backyard and shoot at some cans.
Now let’s look at what happens when you have a false negative. That’s a situation where somebody gets a gun who shouldn’t be able to get a gun. In that case, you’re left with people on the floor bleeding to death, like what happened at Pulse in Orlando, right near my district, 49 of them. You have to think of those things in rational terms. You can’t focus exclusively on the so-called violation of civil liberties. In this case, we’re not talking about somebody being denied the right to vote. We’re not talking about somebody being denied a social-welfare benefits, like, for instance, food stamps. We’re not talking about somebody being denied a job. We’re talking about somebody being denied a gun.
By the way, I think for most people, it’s a far more intrusive denial of their liberties to say that they can’t fly anywhere, than to say that they can’t shoot somebody. I think the great majority of people agree to that.
When asked why the Democrats didn’t put more emphasis on other gun-safety provisions, Grayson implied that highlighting the fact that Republicans were blocking a measure that would potentially keep guns out of the hands of terrorists put the most pressure on the GOP.
Part of it is the fact that there is overwhelming public support. It is literally difficult to explain the logic of allowing people to buy a gun when they can’t get on an airplane. I mean, the difference is that people just have trouble understanding the concept of that.
The American people basically, through polling, have spoken and said that this is a law that they definitely want enacted.
And why now? Why didn’t this happen after 20 children were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary? What’s changed?
I wouldn’t say that this is necessarily a break with what’s happened in the past, and I’m hoping that there is a fair degree of continuity. Right now there are seven states that either ban or heavily regulate assault weapons, three of which joined the group after Sandy Hook, and I’m hoping that more do. I’m hoping that my state does.
But the NRA has the entire Republican body in its pockets at this point. Most districts are so heavily gerrymandered that the only real challenge politically that most Republicans ever face is the challenge in their own primaries, and they want to make sure that they keep the NRA’s support under those circumstances. So you end up in the Senate, for instance, with extremely lopsided votes by Republicans in favor of toadying to the NRA. This week, one vote was 52-2 and the other vote was 53-1 against gun safety by the Republicans.
Asked for his final thoughts, Grayson told The Nation:
This is the lesson that I learned from the shooting that took place in my hometown, Orlando, last Sunday: It’s far too easy to kill many people very quickly. I support all gun measure that make it more difficult to kill people, to murder people, especially those that don’t really intrude on the—the term that’s used most often is—“right” of gun owners to own a gun.
If people were armed with nothing but rocks and box cutters, and even knives, you wouldn’t see this kind of carnage. It would be literally impossible. The NRA recently described the kind of weapon that was used in Orlando as the musket of today. Well, excuse me, but you were lucky if you could get off two rounds from a musket, not 200. The fundamental danger at this point, obviously, comes from the individual—it’s rooted in the individuals—but it also comes from the means available to them, the weapons of mass destruction.