“I can’t tell you how many times I have, either in my former service in the House of Representatives or here in the United States Senate, joined my colleagues in moment of silence,” Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin said as she joined an extraordinary 15-hour Senate filibuster to force a debate on gun violence in America. “Silence is not enough. Thoughts and prayers are important but they are not enough. We have to act.”
Baldwin gave voice to the emerging determination of congressional Democrats (and perhaps even a few Republicans) to end the charade of silence and ceremony that has been used by the National Rifle Association and its minions in the House and Senate to stymie honest debate and necessary action to address mass killings.
The filibuster was launched and led by Senator Chris Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat who has repeatedly come to the floor to read the names of the victims of gun violence into the record. Refusing to allow the memory of the 2012 massacre at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School to fade, Murphy has raised an often lonely voice of outrage in a chamber where moments of silence have been the cursory response to what the rest of America understands as mass murder. “For those of us that represent Connecticut,” he explains, “the failure of this body to do anything, anything at all in the face of that continued slaughter isn’t just painful to us, it’s unconscionable.”
But this week it was different.
Murphy did not stand alone.
As the Senate convened following Sunday’s massacre of 49 people at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, the senator announced on Twitter: “I’ve had #Enough!” Murphy interrupted the regular business of the Senate at 11:21 am Wednesday and declared: “I am prepared to stand on the Senate floor and talk about the need to prevent gun violence for as long as I can.” Initially a handful of Democrats joined him, including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who said, “I’ve cleared my entire day. I’ve cleared my evening events…so I can stand on this floor and support Senator Murphy.” Eventually, dozens of Democratic senators would join Murphy on the floor, while millions of Americans were following the filibuster on C-SPAN and social media (hashtags: #Enough, #filibuster, #DisarmHate).
Murphy and his colleagues held the floor for almost 15 hours, finally concluding what effectively became a group filibuster at 2:11 am Thursday with an announcement that they had received what Murphy had demanded: “some signal, some sign that we can come together.”
It was a small signal: a commitment by Republican Senate leaders to permit votes on amendments to expand background checks and ban gun sales to suspected terrorists. Most members of the Republican majority are expected to oppose the amendments. It is true that, in this election year, the prospect of Senate votes allows for a focusing of energy by citizen lobbyists against gun violence, and perhaps by Democratic challengers to Republican incumbents. But even that may not be enough to move a sufficient number of GOP senators to take the action Americans demand. And there is still the matter of a Republican-controlled House, where Democratic members had to shout from the floor Monday night in order to be heard over Speaker Paul Ryan’s wall of silence.