Gun violence is exploding in America, and so far, there has not been legislation at the federal level to help reduce the problem. In fact, the Congress recently let a law reducing the availability of automatic weapons expire. This Congress has not been able to pass even the most commonsense methods to reduce the violence, such as expanding background checks to all gun sales, laws that would require gun safety features, ban multi-round magazines, or even lift the ban preventing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from studying gun violence so reasonable recommendations could be made to reduce the problem.
One reason for this Congressional stonewall is that the gun lobby, and in particular the National Rifle Association (NRA), dictates gun policy in this country through the Republican Party. And the NRA’s policy is that no law of any kind shall be passed to restrict gun or ammunition sales. The NRA has this hold on Republicans because it has shown the will and capability to sway elections, especially in Republican-leaning districts.
Historically, the House of Representatives has dedicated a moment of silence to commemorate a significant tragedy, such as a mass shooting. But with these tragic events becoming more frequent, most Democrats feel that dedicating a moment of silence is not sufficient. Action is needed to help stop the bloodshed. Since legislative action has been blocked, Democrats in Congress feel that something else must be done.
In the U.S. Senate, the filibuster is available to force action, but the House has nothing like that. So members of the Democratic Caucus held a sit-in on the House floor to prevent business as usual after the mass killing by a lone man with an AR-15 assault rifle left 49 people dead and wounded 50 more people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Tragically, this high-profile event is just one of so many gun-related killings that take place daily in our country, with more than 33,000 deaths per year as a result of gun violence in America.
The proposal to carry-out a sit-in was discussed and it was agreed it should take place after the morning 5-minute speeches. Democratic members who had spoken would sit down on the Well of the House floor. At approximately 11 a.m., as the House went into recess the sit-in started as some members sat down on the floor and some gathered around the two microphones in the Well to begin a series of speeches on gun violence. As this began, the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, decided to shut off the microphones and CSPAN cameras to the House floor. One after another, members approached the two podiums and took turns talking a about gun violence. Some told very personal stories, and some spoke about events that took place in their districts.
Meanwhile, members of the U.S. Senate had heard about the sit-in and started coming over to show support, starting with Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut, home of the horrendous shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Throughout the course of the day, most or all of the Democratic Senators came by to show support. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State even stopped by.
There was no time limit on speeches, so some members spoke longer, but each speech was heartfelt and unscripted. Some were fiery, some deeply personal, some contemplative, but all were genuine.
The stories were shocking, eerily similar, and yet distinct, but each one had an element of tragic loss. While listening, I recalled the very first mass school shooting in the United States that had taken place in 1989 in Stockton, California, the largest city in my district. I told that story. (Speeches were not recorded, so this is not exact, but here is approximately what I said.)
“My colleagues, I normally rise and address the Speaker, but as you can see, the Speaker’s Chair is empty. The reason it’s empty is that the Speaker is hiding in his office just a few yards away, halfway between the House and Senate. And the reason he’s hiding is that he is BOUGHT and PAID FOR by the NRA, and cannot allow us to have a vote because the NRA doesn’t want it.
My colleagues, I want to tell the nation about a terrible and tragic event that took place in my district, in Stockton, California 27 years ago, the first mass school shooting in the nation’s history when a troubled young man with an assault rifle capable of discharging 106 rounds in 3-minutes approached the Cleveland Elementary School. This school had a preponderance of children who looked different from the shooter and whose families probably spoke different languages at home that he did. From the fence surrounding the schoolyard, he opened fire at the children in the playground wounding 30 and killing 5 children ages 6-8.
Unfortunately, the Republicans will not even allow the CDC to study gun violence, to understand the causes and help find solutions.
It has been 27-years since the Cleveland School Shooting, and what has changed?”
Not long after I spoke, two Democratic Members began using their smart phones to stream video from the House floor to the Internet using Facebook and Periscope. CSPAN quickly began airing this streaming video so that subsequent speeches and events could be viewed on TV.
The sit-in was generating significant publicity, and members of the public were spontaneously gathering just off the East Capitol steps is support of the sit-in.
The speeches continued throughout the day and into the night, preventing any of the normally-planned business from taking place. At about 10:30 p.m., Speaker Ryan approached the Speaker’s Chair. As he started making announcements and prepared to push through some procedural votes to set the stage to vote on an appropriations bill to fund military construction projects, the Democrats began chanting: No Bill, No Break. The meaning is that we demanded to have a vote on two items – one to prevent anyone on the no-fly terrorist watch list from being able to purchase guns, and the second to expand background checks as a condition of purchasing a gun. If we did not get to vote on these reasonable bills, the House should not go into recess. A third bill was added to the list to allow the CDC to study the causes of gun violence and offer recommendations to reduce them.
The House is run strictly on a majority vote, and the Republicans have a clear majority. The Speaker pushed through the procedural votes, despite chanting by the Democrats. The House went into immediate recess, so the cameras and microphones could be cut off, which was counterproductive from the Republican point of view, because the streaming continued and gathered more attention than CSPAN would normally get. The Republican majority then bulldozed some rules that allowed them to get the appropriation bills voted on with no debate, but also included a clause that put the House into recess until July 5. This took place over three vote sequences with the last vote ended at 3:15 am.
Roughly 24 hours after the sit-in began, I gave my second speech, which was captured on streaming video. Here’s approximately what I said:
“My colleagues, yesterday I spoke about the first mass school shooting in our nation’s history that took place in my district in 1989. But today, I want to talk about another shooting, this one that took place right here in the Nation’s Capital in 1998. A deranged young man entered the Capital building, and without warning opened fire on the first Capitol Police officers he encountered. Two officers died that day.
So this begs the question: What sort of Civilization do we want to live in? One in which people walk the streets armed to the teeth, and people drive around in their cars with all sorts of weapons, and in which any misunderstanding could result in a gun fight and pools of blood? In which children go through metal detectors to get to school? Or do we want to live in a civilization in which we trust each other enough to walk the streets without fear, go the movies or church, or school without fear?
Civilization has advanced by reducing violence, by eliminating slavery and torture, but we are headed in the other direction toward more violence.
Week after week, we have message bills such as overturning health reform and doing away with the EPA. Let’s actually get something done here that will have a positive impact on the lives of our constituents.
My Republican colleagues, I know many of you. You are good people. You are here for the right reasons. You care about your districts and about our nation. You don’t want violence in your cities streets. Please, work with us. Throw off the shackles of the NRA and the gun manufacturers. If you have better ideas on how to reduce the violence, then please bring them forward, but please don’t waste our time with message bills. Join us and stop the violence.”
After 26 hours, the sit-in ended and the remaining members went outside to show appreciation to the crowd that had gathered and remained throughout the night in support.
House Democrats are continuing to push for action on gun violence prevention. We’re calling for a National Day of Action on Gun Violence Prevention on Wednesday, June 29th and demanding that Speaker Ryan allow bipartisan, commonsense gun reform legislation on the House floor for a vote.