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Singing, Chanting, Vows for Change as Gun Sit-in Ends


From left, House Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., sing "We Shall Overcome" on Capitol Hill, in Washington, June

From left, House Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., sing "We Shall Overcome" on Capitol Hill, in Washington, June

House Democrats chanted, shouted appeals to their Republicans colleagues and -- finally as they ended their 26-hour sit-in outside the U.S. Capitol Thursday -- they sang.

Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, led Democrats out to the Capitol steps where they were surrounded by supporters chanting "Thank You! Thank You!" The protesting lawmakers responded by breaking into the song they sang on the House floor hours before, the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome."

But this time they added words looking ahead to the next session of Congress: "We shall pass the bill."

The song ended a day and night of unprecedented and often intense firsts in the U.S. House of Representatives, as the Republican leadership shut down cameras showing the House floor, causing Democratic lawmakers to turn to social media and live video on the internet via Twitter to stream their protest.

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell's very personal experience with gun violence was one of the most emotional moments streamed live during the sit-in.

FILE - Congresswoman Debbie Dingell in Detroit, April 11, 2016. Dingell shared a personal story about the gun control issue during a sit-in held by House Democrats at the Capitol.

FILE - Congresswoman Debbie Dingell in Detroit, April 11, 2016. Dingell shared a personal story about the gun control issue during a sit-in held by House Democrats at the Capitol.

​"I know what it’s like to see a gun pointed at you and wonder if you were going to live," Dingell, of Michigan, said on the House floor late Wednesday. Dingell grew up in a home where "the man who was my father shouldn't have had access to guns."

"It's not easy," she told VOA in a phone interview Thursday about sharing her story. "It was a very difficult night, and I didn't know what I was going to say, and that was a speech that just came from my heart."

Dingell said she has lived the tension between Democrats and Republicans on the gun issue. She said the experience with her home life growing up has "deeply" impacted how she feels about guns. But she is also married to a former National Rifle Association board member and "a responsible gun owner and deep believer in the Second Amendment and the delicate balance of that in terms of our civil liberty."

Dingell said she ultimately decided to share her story because "this shouldn't be a partisan issue. I just felt the need to get people to understand there are issues we need to talk about, and every time something awful happens, we have the same old dialogue."

She said there is a way to have a discussion about keeping guns out of the hands of the wrong people.

In the crowd outside

Like Dingell, Raine Koch personally experienced gun violence as domestic violence. She joined the hundreds of supporters gathered outside the Capitol Wednesday night and into Thursday.

The protesters chanted the same slogans that came from the House floor: "No Bill No Break," ordered pizza and waited out sometimes rainy conditions.

Members of Congress came out from the House floor to thank the crowd for their support. Koch, watching many of them speak, cried.

"I saw my father put a rifle to my mother's head," she told VOA.

While Koch, her mother and her sisters eventually made it out of the home safely, she said the issue has always remained important to her.

"When those kids were killed in Sandy Hook, it broke my heart, and I have a lot of friends who are in the LGBT community," she said, referencing the latest shooting in Orlando.

About 100 protesters waited outside the Capitol, in Washington, June 23, 2016. After ending their sit-in on the House floor, House Democrats exited the Capitol to thank supporters who had gathered.

About 100 protesters waited outside the Capitol, in Washington, June 23, 2016. After ending their sit-in on the House floor, House Democrats exited the Capitol to thank supporters who had gathered.

"Something has to be done with guns in this nation, and I come from a family of hunters, so it's not even like I'm anti-gun. But something has to be done," Koch said.

Republican response

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said the sit-in was not about emotion; it was about money.

In a briefing with reporters Thursday morning, Ryan held up printouts of emails he said showed House Democrats using the sit-in as a "fundraising stunt."

Ryan said he was "very worried" the sit-in set a precedent for future actions by lawmakers who were unable to achieve their goals by bringing up legislation through the normal course of action in the House of Representatives.

"This is the people's house. This is Congress, the House of Representatives, the oldest democracy in the world, and they're descending it into chaos," Ryan said. "I don't think this should be a very proud moment for democracy."

WATCH: Congressman John Lewis leads supporters in We Shall Overcome


Ryan said there were no plans to bring gun control legislation up for a vote, just as legislation was brought up for a vote following a filibuster in the Senate. He said gun control amendments have already been brought up in House committees and failed, and cited FBI concerns about ways gun control legislation could compromise terrorism investigations.

"We want to get it right while protecting people's Constitutional guaranteed rights and not violating the due process rights," he said.

But Democrats vowed to come back after the Independence Day holiday recess to renew the fight.

As the sit-in came to a close Thursday afternoon, Lewis told about a hundred Democrats assembled on the House floor, "When you want to do something about gun violence, it is not a struggle that lasts one day, one week, one month, one year -- it is a struggle. But we are going to win the struggle."

Dingell agrees. "The sit-in for today is over," she told VOA. "But the effort to get people to keep people out of the hands of terrorists, or convicted felons or domestic abusers is still a very real and ongoing effort."

From left, Congressman James Clyburn and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the Capitol steps, June 23, 2016. After ending their sit-in on the House floor, House Democrats went outside to thank supporters who had gathered.

From left, Congressman James Clyburn and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the Capitol steps, June 23, 2016. After ending their sit-in on the House floor, House Democrats went outside to thank supporters who had gathered.

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    Katherine Gypson

    Katherine Gypson is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C.  Prior to joining VOA in 2013, Katherine produced documentary and public affairs programming in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Turkey. She also produced and co-wrote a 12-episode road-trip series for Pakistani television exploring the United States during the 2012 presidential election. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from American University. Follow her @kgyp

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