As Rep. John Lewis leads House Democrats in a civil rights-style ‘sit-in,’ a bipartisan Senate group tries to find common ground on ‘no-fly list’ gun restrictions.
COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
WASHINGTON – Fed up with Republican inaction on gun control, House Democrats shut down business as usual Wednesday with an old-fashioned, if highly unusual, sit-in that forced live television coverage of the chamber off the air and sent GOP leaders scrambling for cover.
The scene, including chants of “No bill, no break!” was like nothing that has occurred in Congress in recent years, more reminiscent of the civil rights battles of the 1960s than today’s often predictably scripted debates.
Reached their limit
But after the Orlando mass shooting – and others in San Bernardino, Calif., and Newtown, Conn. – along with the Senate’s failure to advance gun ownership restrictions earlier in the week, Democrats said they’d had enough.
In the wake of the deadly rampage, Democrats have stepped up their calls for laws that would prevent terror suspects from buying guns.
But those efforts failed. Despite increasing pressure on lawmakers to pass some kind of gun legislation in the wake of the Orlando shooting, four separate gun control bills were voted down this week in the Senate, with each failing to garner the 60 votes needed to move forward.
A new hope
A new bill, spearheaded by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, raises hopes of a bipartisan compromise since it would involve a significantly smaller group of potential gun buyers than those covered in the failed amendments.
The consolidated terror watch list has more than 1 million names. The bill proposed Tuesday would restrict only the 109,000 people on no-fly and selectee lists, people considered enough of a terror risk to go through additional security screenings before they board airplanes. Of those, roughly 2,800 are U.S. citizens, Collins said.
Under the “look-back” provision, drafted by South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, individuals who have appeared on either list within the past five years also would be subject to review by the FBI if they try to buy guns.
Republicans opposed the broader Democratic proposals Monday because, they said, too many innocent Americans who mistakenly ended up on the terror watch lists would be stripped of their rights. With the smaller number of Americans on this list, Graham said, that is a risk it makes sense to take.
“The likelihood of someone being on this list and buying a gun and using it for a terrorist attack, to me, is far greater than the likelihood of an innocent person being on this list,” Graham said at the news conference. “But here’s the tiebreaker: We can fix the problem of the innocent person. Once the gun’s sold, you can’t fix that.”
The proposed bill would allow individuals who were denied firearms to appeal the decisions in court.
Democrats from the Congressional Black Caucus initially had planned to stage a symbolic sit-in before heading to a scheduled press conference on Wednesday calling on Republican leaders of the House to allow votes on gun control legislation. But the lawmakers participating in the protest now appear to have settled in for the long haul.
Shortly after the House gaveled in for a routine day of legislating, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., strode into the chamber, stood at a podium and called on his colleagues to join him. Within moments, about two dozen lawmakers gathered around the lectern as he spoke.
Then many sat, legs crossed, on the chamber’s blue-carpeted floor. By midafternoon, scores more had arrived to show their support, vowing to stay until they received a vote on gun control legislation.
“I wondered, what would bring this body to take action?” thundered Lewis, who as a young man marched with Martin Luther King Jr. “What is right, what is just for the people of this country? …
They have lost hundreds and thousands of innocent people to gun violence. What has this body done? Nothing. Not one thing.”
‘Out of order’
Republicans, who control the House majority, declared the proceedings out of order and quickly called a recess, which automatically turned off the cameras that usually provide live coverage to C-SPAN.
Lawmakers then took to social media, tweeting and updating their status from the floor. San Diego Democratic Rep. Scott Peters posted live Periscope video that C-SPAN eventually began broadcasting.
Protests in Congress can take different forms, such as the filibuster in the Senate and procedural votes in the House. During the 2008 summer recess, House Republicans held a similar protest against Democrats’ refusal to vote on GOP energy bills they believed would lower skyrocketing gas prices. During the 1995 federal government shutdown, Democrats refused to leave until services were restored after Republicans recessed.
House GOP officials called Wednesday’s protest a “Democratic publicity stunt” and noted that Democrats, when they controlled the House in 2008, also shut off the cameras.
Democrats face long odds of passing new gun restrictions with both the House and Senate controlled by Republicans, and the National Rifle Association opposed to most of the bills that have been proposed.
Polls show most Americans favor new gun restrictions, but opinions become more divided along party lines with Republicans largely believing gun laws are adequate.
Wednesday’s sit-in began around 11:30 a.m. Shortly after noon, the Republican presiding officer gaveled the chamber back into session and proceeded with the morning prayer, but the protest continued and another recess was called.
Several senators, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, walked across the Capitol to join their peers in the House, as lawmakers took turns in the chamber sharing personal stories from their own lives, and their congressional districts, of lives lost to gun violence.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., talked about the death of his son, who was shot and killed in 1999. Rush described feeling helpless after his son died.
“I never will forget the primal scream of my son’s mother,” Rush said on the Capitol steps.
Gun control advocates praised the House Democrats for forcing attention on the issue.
“As Dr. King used to say, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’” said Lucy McBath, faith and outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety, the mother of a teenager slain by gun violence.
“We are seeing the arc bend before our very eyes – Americans demand that we do more to disarm hate.”
Lisa Mascaro and Sarah D. Wire of the Tribune Washington Bureau and Vera Bergengruen and Megan Henney of the McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS) all contributed to this report.