Yesterday, the type of “political revolution” that Bernie Sanders called for but did not deliver during the 2016 Democratic Party primaries was launched instead by the Democrats in the House of Representatives. In a stunning, unprecedented move, Democratic Representatives protested the Republican majority and the National Rifle Association by staging a “sit-in” on the House floor after the Republicans refused to vote on gun violence legislation in the wake of the June 12 Orlando, Florida nightclub shootings in which 49 people were killed by a man using a semi-automatic assault-type rifle and a semi-automatic pistol.
In House floor statements and subsequent interviews, these House Democrats cited voter approval figures of approximately 90 percent for sensible gun laws such as universal background checks. These figures are crucial, as most members of Congress typically do not risk their elected positions by being way out in front of controversial issues. Likewise, Democratic Representatives such as Adam Schiff of California adopted a more aggressive message of “thoughts and prayers and moments of silence are no longer enough” to demonstrate their resolve. Hillary Clinton had a similar public reaction. In this respect, we may be seeing a major cultural shift over gun safety of the same type that recently occurred with same-sex marriage.
Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia set the moral tone for the House protest. Lewis, the 1960s civil rights leader, compared the sit-in to the earlier civil rights protests in which he almost lost his life, and said “we can no longer wait” to take action on gun violence. The Democrats’ House sit-in, admittedly an act of civil disobedience that violated House rules, was quite different from the U.S. Senate, where Democrats launched a nearly 15-hour filibuster a week earlier to force a Senate vote on two gun violence measures, the so-called “No Fly No Buy” bill and a bill to expand background checks for gun purchases. These different tactics by Democrats in the two houses of Congress reflect the fact that there is no mechanism in the House similar to the Senate filibuster which can slow or halt the work of the chamber in order to continue debate on particular issues. The House sit-in was thus a last-ditch, desperate effort by Democrats to bring attention to the gun violence issue in the face of inaction by the Republican majority.
The Republicans, meanwhile, found themselves in a public relations bind. They were in the position of not wanting to hold a vote on a life-and-death issue, and trying to get out of town for yet another vacation. This led the Democrats to chant “No bill, no break!” which has since become a popular Twitter hashtag. The Republicans shut off the C-SPAN cameras on Wednesday to try to prevent Americans from seeing the Democratic protest, but that only made things worse, as the Democratic members used cell phone cameras to broadcast home-made video via Facebook and Periscope. This gave the Democrats’ protest an organic feel not unlike the “Arab Spring” protests in the Middle East in 2010-2011.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan must have known that, had he called the House Sergeant-at-Arms to clear the Democrats from the House floor, the resulting optics would have been abysmal for the Republicans. The best Ryan and the Republicans could do was adjourn the House early Thursday morning and go home. However, the Democrats continued their sit-in until this afternoon, and this time, their issue of doing something about the U.S. epidemic of gun violence and mass killings does not look like it is going away any time soon.
Photo by bm-adverts, used under Creative Commons license. https://is.gd/msKkwY