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House Democrats End Marathon Sit-in to Demand Gun Reform


Georgia Rep. John Lewis leads more than 200 Democrats in demanding a vote on measures to expand background checks and block gun purchases by some suspected terrorists, in this frame grab taken from AP video, June 22, 2016.

Georgia Rep. John Lewis leads more than 200 Democrats in demanding a vote on measures to expand background checks and block gun purchases by some suspected terrorists, in this frame grab taken from AP video, June 22, 2016.

"The fight is not over, this is just one step," declared civil rights icon John Lewis as he and a group of House Democrats ended a nearly 26-hour sit-in on the chamber's floor, demanding a vote on gun control legislation.

The group was cheered Thursday afternoon by more than 100 gun control supporters as they walked out of Capitol Hill.

Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, dismissed the call by their Democratic colleagues and voted early Thursday to adjourn their work until July 5.

The move capped a dramatic night on Capitol Hill where the Republicans periodically returned to the chamber to hold votes while Democrats rallied around a cry of "No bill, no break," and booed House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Between the votes, Republicans put the House in recess, a move that meant cameras and microphones inside the chamber were turned off. Democrats turned to streaming their protest on cell phones using Facebook and Periscope, and the non-profit U.S. cable network C-SPAN began broadcasting their feeds instead of its customary use of the House cameras.

Lewis of Georgia launched the Democrats' call for legislative action in response to the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, midday Wednesday, urging Republicans to join in passing "common sense solutions."

Just before 4 a.m. Thursday, as some of his colleagues continued speaking on the House floor, Lewis said the American people want lawmakers to act and Democrats will start pushing again when the House returns to session in July.

"The fight is an ongoing fight," Lewis said. "We will not be happy, we will not be satisfied, we will not be pleased until we do something in a major way, make a major down payment to end gun violence in America. We've lost too many of our children, our babies, too many of our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and we will continue to fight."

During the night, Ryan criticized the Democrats for what he called a "publicity stunt."

Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly said it is "about more than a stunt."

Protesters gather outside the Capitol during the Democrat sit-in, June 22, 2016. (R. Green/VOA)

Protesters gather outside the Capitol during the Democrat sit-in, June 22, 2016. (R. Green/VOA)

"It's telling a story about America that we're not very proud of and that we've gotta change," he told VOA. "It will not soften some of these hard hearts, but it sets the stage for a national discussion we desperately need, we think, and I hope will lead to reform."

The House disruptions followed last week’s action by Senate Democrats on the other side of the Capitol. Led by Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Democrats spoke on the Senate floor for 15 consecutive hours, at which point Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to bring gun control measures up for a vote.

On Wednesday, several senators walked across the Capitol to join their House colleagues in a show of support.

Visitors watched the proceedings from the galleries. A crowd of several hundred gun control advocates gathered outside the Capitol to show their support.

One of them was Raine Koch, of Alexandria, Virginia, who told VOA she was a survivor of gun violence as a child. "Something has to be done with guns in this nation," she said. "This is a big issue."

Congressman Lewis’ participation brought poignancy and historical gravitas to the House protest. An African American, Lewis took part in the 1965 civil rights march from Selma, Alabama that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” when state troopers attacked with clubs and tear gas. Lewis suffered a wound to his head.

Lewis and others used sit-ins to great effect in the 1960s to protest racial segregation at lunch counters and public facilities.

On Wednesday, some House Republicans responded to the Democratic protest with derision.

“Calling this a sit-in is a disgrace to [protests at] Woolworth’s [lunch counters],” tweeted Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, adding that the sit-ins of the past pressed for expanded civil rights, while Democrats want to “strip [gun rights] away.”

A photo tweeted from the floor of the U.S. House by Rep. Donna Edwards (R) shows Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including herself and Rep. John Lewis (L) staging a sit-in on the House floor.

A photo tweeted from the floor of the U.S. House by Rep. Donna Edwards (R) shows Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including herself and Rep. John Lewis (L) staging a sit-in on the House floor.

Rep. Steven Russell of Oklahoma told VOA the Democrats' action amounted to grandstanding and "absolute theatrics."

"I'm really disappointed that that's what our institutions are eroding to," said Russell. "I think we can do better."

The sit-in drew attention from Speaker Ryan’s long-awaited unveiling of a Republican alternative to President Barack Obama’s signature domestic legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Ryan was away from the Capitol for much of the day, rolling out the Republican proposal at a Washington public policy research institute.

VOA's Esha Sarai and Richard Green contributed to this report.

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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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