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Explaining the US House Sit-in Over Gun Control

U.S. House Democrats including John Lewis, left, and Donna Edwards, right, stage a sit-in to demand action on gun legislation. Edwards tweeted the photo.
U.S. House Democrats including John Lewis, left, and Donna Edwards, right, stage a sit-in to demand action on gun legislation. Edwards tweeted the photo.

In staging a sit-in pushing for a vote on gun control legislation, U.S. House Democrats said they were raising public awareness about what they contend is a crisis of violence. House Republicans denounced the action as a publicity stunt and an affront to the legislative process.

What happened?

Spurred on by the June 12 mass shooting that killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, two dozen House Democrats plunked themselves down on the floor of their Capitol Hill chamber Wednesday morning. Some sat cross-legged, chanting "no bill, no break," demanding to vote before the next recess.

Their numbers peaked at around 200 before the sit-in ended at Thursday afternoon. Their goal: forcing a vote on gun control legislation.

That legislation includes several measures, including strengthening background checks and preventing individuals on a federal terrorist watch list from purchasing guns.

Senate Republicans blocked similar long-pending legislation to limit gun sales, voting down four measures on Monday – days after Democrats filibustered to force action. On Tuesday, a bipartisan coalition introduced a compromise bill to keep terror suspects on the government’s “no-fly list” from buying guns. The Senate measure survived a vote Thursday, though it lacks the three-fifths backing needed to advance.

Who played key roles in the sit-in?

The most prominent player was Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and 76-year-old lion of the civil rights movement. In 1965 in the southern city of Selma, Alabama, he’d marched across a bridge with other activists seeking voting rights for American blacks – and was among those wounded when government forces responded with batons and firehoses. The so-called “Bloody Sunday” was credited with fueling passage of the Voting Rights Act. At one point in the congressional sit-in, he cheered his colleagues’ willingness to commit “good trouble.”

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan had a different description for the sit-in, tweeting that it was “no more than a publicity stunt” aimed at fundraising. He cut congressional cameras to the proceedings and continued with other legislation, adjourning the session around 3 a.m. Thursday. It will resume July 5.

The Wisconsin legislator noted that his Democratic colleagues’ bill banning gun sales to suspects on federal terror watch lists failed to get sufficient votes in committee. "That’s a fact they didn’t want to talk about," he said scornfully. He also pointed out that a bill could take an alternate route to full House consideration: "It just takes 218 signatures on a petition."

Is there precedence for a sit-in?

Only twice since the 1970s have disruptive House legislators seized control to demand a vote, The Washington Post reports: "In 1995, House Democrats spent a few hours on the floor in protest of a budget that House Republicans passed. In 2008, House Republicans seized the floor in August for the entire recess to demand that Democrats let them vote on oil drilling to lower $4-a-gallon gas prices." They got to vote, mostly "because Democrats feared the sit-in would endanger Barack Obama's presidential campaign."

What’s next?

House Democrats plan to resume efforts to move along gun legislation upon returning from recess. "We must never give up or give in," Lewis said in closing remarks. "We must keep the faith and come back here on July 5 more determined than ever before."

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