US Democrats stage sit-in to protest gun laws

Washington, June 23

US Democrats today vowed to continue pushing for gun safety legislation in the wake of the Orlando nightclub massacre after a dramatic overnight sit-in failed to force a vote in Congress.

The scenes on the House floor, unprecedented in recent history, began after Democrats took over the chamber’s proceedings yesterday, prompting Republican Speaker Paul Ryan to gavel the House into session late at night.

Ryan, who dismissed the protest as a “publicity stunt,” refused to allow votes on two bills demanded by Democrats: one to expand background checks and another that prevents people on terror watch lists and no-fly lists from buying guns.

Instead, he called for votes on unrelated issues as he sought a return to order as Democrats shouted “No bill, no break!” referring to the Fourth of July holiday when Congress adjourns.

“The time for silence and patience is long gone,” said House Democrat John Lewis, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s and led Wednesday’s protest.

“Do we have raw courage to make at least a down payment on ending gun violence in America?” he added.

The House drama began before noon when Lewis and dozens of colleagues sat down on the carpeted floor in the well of the chamber.

Fifteen hours after the sit-in began, the presiding officer adjourned the House for two weeks and Republicans began leaving the building.

But about 20 Democrats remained on the House floor as party leaders huddled over what to do next.

Democratic House whip Steny Hoyer accused Republicans of having “left in the dead of night with business unfinished.”

“The fight will continue when the House comes back in session,” he added, referring to the July 5 return date.

The congressional disobedience reflects the escalating political confrontation during an extraordinary presidential campaign, with Democrats urging tougher gun control measures -- even if such legislation has virtually no chance of passing a vote.

US lawmakers, mainly Democrats, have introduced several bills in recent years aimed at reducing gun violence, including legislation to expand background checks, but none have passed Congress.

“Who has to be shot, and how many have to die before we do anything?” asked congresswoman Robin Kelly.

The sit-in, which quickly grew to about 100 members, drew attention from the White House.

“Thank you John Lewis for leading on gun violence where we need it most,” President Barack Obama posted on Twitter.

Democratic White House hopeful Hillary Clinton also chimed in after C-Span, which broadcasts congressional sessions, was forced to turn off its cameras after Republicans forced a recess.

“House Republicans may have cut the cameras, but they can’t cut off our voices,” Clinton said in a tweet.

“We have to act on gun violence.”

Democrats enacted a creative workaround, broadcasting live video from Periscope and Facebook that was carried by C-Span.

It was the first time the public broadcaster aired live social media footage from the House floor -- where taking pictures and video is prohibited.

It showed extraordinary scenes.

Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, a former US Army helicopter pilot who was wounded and lost both legs in Iraq, sat with her colleagues on the carpet, with her prosthetics removed and her wheelchair empty beside her.

Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi joined the insurgents, then led several lawmakers and gun violence survivors and relatives outside onto the Capitol steps, where protesters sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

The Senate rejected four gun control amendments earlier this week, although a handful of lawmakers are pushing a bipartisan compromise bill aimed at preventing terror suspects and people on no-fly lists and FBI watchlists from buying firearms.