In a sign of how dramatically the debate about gun violence in the United States has changed since the June 12 Orlando massacre, Democratic members of the House of Representatives occupied their chamber’s floor from mid-day Wednesday through early Thursday morning for a sit-in that demanded the Republican-controlled House take up meaningful legislation to address the crisis.
Sixteen hours after the extraordinary protest began, with a demand the the House consider gun violence legislation before beginning its traditional summer break, Republican Speaker Paul Ryan brought members of his caucus to the floor and adjourned the chamber for the break in a chaotic final clash with the Democrats. But the leader of the protest, Congressman John Lewis, promised that the struggle was not finished.
Indeed, said the Georgia Democrat who has embraced the gun-violence issue with the passion that he brought to his civil-rights activism of a half century ago, a new and more urgent fight for gun control has only just begun.
While a handful of Democrats huddled on the House floor after the adjournment, Lewis suggested that he and other Democrats would continue to press for action in the weeks and months to come. “We made some progress. We crossed one bridge, but we have other bridges to cross,” said Lewis, recalling the historic 1965 civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama. “It took us three times to make it from Selma all the way to Montgomery.”
The prospect of further sit-down protests and disruptions of business-as-usual in Washington — where Senate Democrats engaged in a filibuster on gun-violence issues just days ago — now seems very real.
“When we come back in July, we will start all over again,” said Lewis, whose bold challenge to Ryan and the Republicans — and to the National Rifle Association and gun-manufacturing interests they represent — confirmed the extent to which Democrats have decided to make gun violence a central issue for their party in Congress and in the 2016 campaign.
Only a few years ago, Democrats tended to avoid gun violence issues, on the theory that they were politically divisive and had little chance of success. But as the pattern of mass murders continued, culminating in the June 12 carnage at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Democrats began to shift their approach. Refusing to go along with Ryan’s “moment of silence” charade, which sought to foster the fantasy that quietly mourning each new mass shooting was a sufficient response, Democrats began to demand what Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan described as a “moment of action.”