Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives held an all-night sit-in into Thursday morning in their disruptive push for gun control legislation after the gay nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, even though Republicans went home for a holiday break.
After a raucous day that nearly erupted into a fistfight, the majority Republicans retook control of the House in the predawn hours on Thursday, adjourned the chamber after forcing through several unrelated measures and said there would be no more votes until after the July 4 holiday. The protesting Democrats stayed behind and vowed to continue their protest.
Scores of Democrats had flooded the House floor at 11:25 a.m. on Wednesday and still occupied it as of Thursday morning. They sat in the aisles, often chanting and singing, and brought business to a halt, demanding Republican leaders allow a vote on gun-related legislation after the June 12 shooting in which a gunman killed 49 people.
“We are going to hold the floor of the House of Representatives … until we can get the majority to do their jobs and give us a vote,” Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz told CBS “This Morning.”
“It’s a cowardly act that they have not at least allowed a vote,” said Wasserman Schultz, who heads the Democratic National Committee.
Such dramatic tactics by legislators are rare in the U.S. Capitol and the Democrats’ protest underscored how sensitive the gun control issue has become after the Orlando massacre and other mass shootings in Connecticut, Colorado, California and elsewhere in recent years. It also has become a heated issue in the run-up to the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election.
Democrats were seeking votes on legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases, as well as measures to curb the sale of weapons to people on government watch lists.
Representative John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia and a key figure in the civil rights protests of 1960s, led the House sit-in and said the fight for gun restrictions would go on.
“Today we’ve come a distance. We’ve made some progress,” he said. “We’ve crossed one bridge but we have other bridges to cross. And when we come back in July, we’ll start all over again. The American people, they want us to act, they want us to do something.”
Republicans, angry about losing control of the chamber for most of a day, denounced the sit-in as a publicity stunt. Chaotic scenes ensued when several Republican representatives charged the chamber floor and yelled at protesting Democrats, prompting a confrontation that nearly descended into fisticuffs.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan refused Democrats’ demands for action on gun control, insisting he would not bring up any bill that would take away gun owners’ constitutional rights.
Instead he forced votes on unrelated legislation. Democrats held up signs honoring gun violence victims during the votes and sang “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement.
Ryan called for decorum but could scarcely be heard over Democrats chanting “no bill, no break!” to demand action on guns before the holiday recess.
“The House is focused on eliminating terrorists, not constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” said Ryan’s spokeswoman, AshLee Strong. “And no stunts on the floor will change that.”
ECHOING THE SENATE
The Democrats’ move came after last week’s filibuster by Senate Democrats to protest inaction on guns in the wake of the Orlando mass shooting, the worst in modern U.S. history.
After the Senate talk-a-thon, the Senate’s Republican majority scheduled votes on four gun control measures – all of which failed on Monday. Work on a compromise is under way.
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who joined the protesting House members for a while, told CNN the chamber could have a vote on that bill as early as Thursday.
Congress has not passed major gun control legislation since 1994, with gun rights defenders saying such measures infringe the constitutional right to bear arms.
Pleading for action on gun control, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi invoked not only Orlando but other mass shootings, including an attack a year ago by a white man at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine people.
“Just because they have left doesn’t mean we are taking no for an answer,” she said after Republicans departed.
In addition to Kaine, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker took part in the protest. All three have been mentioned as potential running mates for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who voiced her support on Twitter.
Lawmakers also took to social media to document their demonstration with video and pictures.
Outside the Capitol, dozens of supporters gathered in solidarity at a rally organized by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.