The House Rebellion on Gun Control

Compounding 49 lives lost, the American man who committed the murders in the Orlando shooting on June 12th may have been motivated by a complex mix of ISIL-inspired terrorism, anger toward American culture, bigotry, homophobia and internalized self-hatred. In addition, he also had legal access to assault weapons with high capacity magazines; all of which forming a lethal combination. However, as disturbing as this incident was, it was only one of 91 gun-related mass murders in 2016 alone (mass murder is defined as four or more victims including the gunman). As I noted in a previous article, in the last 10 years alone, there have been 371 deaths from mass gun shootings. Overwhelmingly, the shooters’ weapons of choice were high-powered, semi-automatic assault guns and rifles and so the debate continues. On the one hand, it is our constitutional right as American citizens to own a gun for protection but then there is also the argument for stricter gun control laws in hopes of preventing mass violence and death.
Following the Orlando shooting on Sunday, June 12th, the Democrats shut down the House’s legislative work on Wednesday, staging a sit-in on the House floor and refusing to leave until they secured a vote on gun control measures before lawmakers’ weeklong break. Despite the infuriated Republicans, who went to recess and cut off cameras that showed the protest, C-SPAN was able to use live video feeds from one lawmaker’s Periscope account and another’s Facebook page to transmit words and images from the House chamber floor. Twitter and Periscope were also used to transmit video live streams. Democrats posted the Capitol’s main telephone number, which was overwhelmed, and urged constituents to call and request a vote. They also encouraged tweeting under the hashtag #NoBillNoBreak.


More than 200 Democrats, and later a handful of republicans, led by Georgia Rep. John Lewis(D) demanded a vote on measures to expand background checks and block gun purchases by some suspected terrorists in the aftermath of last week’s massacre. To say that the House was filled with an abundance of tension and high emotion that day is putting it lightly. “No bill, no break,” shouted Democrats, who demanded that Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., keep the House in session through its planned break next week to vote on gun legislation. Democrats accused Republicans of political cowardice by failing to schedule a vote. “Are they more afraid than the children at Sandy Hook?” asked Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., referring to the 2012 shooting that killed 26 people, including 20 elementary school children, in Newtown, Connecticut. “What is so scary about having a vote?” Lewis, a veteran civil rights leader, asked what Congress has done, then answered his own question: “Nothing. We have turned a deaf ear to the blood of innocents. We are blind to a crisis. Where is our courage?”


The protest began around 11:30 a.m. and by evening, more than nine hours later, 168 House Democrats — out of 188 — and 34 Senate Democrats joined the protest, according to the House minority leader’s office. One after another, they spoke of the need for gun control and talked of constituents who had been killed. Scattered around the House floor were signs reading “Disarm Hate.” Visitors watched from the galleries as a crowd of gun control advocates gathered outside the Capitol and cheered as Democrats addressed them. Congress remains gridlocked over gun control, a divide believed to be even more pronounced because 2016 is a presidential election year. It was reported that the sit-in had the feel of a 1960s-style protest, as some lawmakers sat on the floor, others in their seats. Some may remember that Republicans had staged a similar protest in 2008 when the Democrats controlling the House at the time turned off the cameras in the midst of a GOP push for a vote to expand oil and gas drilling within a bill for climate reform. Republicans occupied the floor, delivering speeches after then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent the House on its August recess. Republicans ultimately forced the drilling provision to be attached to a stopgap spending bill. Ryan dismissed the protest as “nothing more than a publicity stunt,” and in an interview with CNN, made clear there would be no vote. Sworn to protect the Constitution, “We’re not going to take away a citizen’s constitutional rights without due process,” he said. Following an insider meeting, Republicans said they would hold votes on other legislation, but not the gun votes demanded by the Democrats. Pelosi, now the house minority leader, said the House needs to act on gun legislation, rather than continually hold moments of silence and give moving speeches in memory of victims of gun violence. “We truly believe that if there were a vote that we would win the vote, because 85 to 90% of the American people support responsible background checks legislation,” Pelosi said.


Energized by the attention to their sit-in, House Democrats declared Wednesday, June 22nd a “National Day of Action” on guns and held news conferences and protests around the country while lawmakers were home for the Fourth of July recess. The rebellion in the House of Representatives entered a second day on Thursday as protesting Democrats refused to give up and continued to demand votes on gun control measures opposed by Republicans. While two dozen or so Democratic lawmakers camped out in the well of the House chamber, Speaker Paul Ryan talked tough hours after adjourning the body until July 5 during a raucous overnight session.” Democrats can talk all they want,” Ryan said. “But the bottom line is despite these distractions we did our job.” Ryan said he has no intention of bringing up for a vote proposed bills that would bar suspected terrorists on no-fly lists from buying guns and impose universal background checks saying they “already failed in committee.” Nancy Pelosi was one of many who were very vocal in their beliefs stating “Now is not a time for lawmakers to retreat to their ideological corners and do nothing; but rather a time to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the American people to make responsible changes that honor our history and our diversity, and make our country a safer place to live.” A handful of Democrats remained on the floor into the morning, speaking about constitutional issues and delivering messages. DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman said Democrats should not have to “storm the House, literally.”


This was a widely publicized sit-in by House Democrats and bipartisan compromise proposal in the Senate. However, neither is very likely to lead to any legislative action in Congress on gun safety this year due to election day being so close and most of the Republican opposition set in their beliefs. But the fact that a legislative response remains elusive does not mean there has been no movement on the issue. Members of both parties say they sensed a shift in the gun debate after the shooting in Orlando, Fla., a notable difference in attitude from the reaction on Capitol Hill after a number of previous shootings. Eight Senate Republicans joined with 44 Democrats on a Republican-proposed compromise that would deny people on two different federal watch lists the ability to buy weapons unless they could successfully appeal that decision. Several other Republican senators showed some willingness to accept new restrictions on gun purchases if they could be structured in an acceptable way. A bipartisan companion measure also was introduced in the House. These are incremental steps in the world of gun control politics. “The Constitution’s a sacred document, but it is not a suicide pact,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a gun owner. “This is not hard for me. Due process is important, but at the end of the day, we are at war.” Republicans find it much easier to explain enacting gun restrictions to constituents devoted to the Second Amendment if they can frame their position as an act against terrorism. To Democrats, any hint of separation between some Republicans and the N.R.A. is welcome. “For the first time in quite a while, you’re seeing some Republicans buck the N.R.A.,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, who is likely to be the Democratic leader next year.


After watching Democrats tie up the Senate with a 15-hour delay and Democrats occupy the House floor with a 25-hour sit-in that exploded on social media, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, is eager to take up other issues. Clearly, we have got to move on,” Mr. McConnell said Sunday on ABC’s This Week, though he added, “This is an issue, obviously, we’ll be revisiting again in the future.” “Whether people like it or not, there is a constitutional right in our country to own and possess a firearm,” he said. Mr. McConnell was heavily invested in making sure the compromise plan offered by Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and opposed by the N.R.A., ended up short of the filibuster-proof level of 60 votes. He does not want to be remembered as the leader of a Republican-controlled Senate that defied the NRA, one of the most powerful allies of his party. He also allowed a competing alternative by Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, that probably drew Republican votes from the Collins plan. These votes exposed a small group of Republican senators who might eventually be willing to support gun restrictions in the interest of preventing terrorism, perhaps enough to eventually push a compromise proposal to the 60-vote level.


“The fact that terrorism has become intertwined with the gun issue puts greater pressure on Republican senators and Senator McConnell to get something done,” Mr. Schumer said. Chuck Schumer and his fellow Democrats acknowledge the latest round of debate on gun control is good politics for them, particularly in swing states like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Ohio that will be crucial to deciding control of the Senate in November. Polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans would deny those on terrorism watch lists the ability to buy guns, which the Collins bill proposed. Democrats said they decided to fully support this plan to show they were serious about moving ahead with gun control even though the compromise fell short of their legislative goals and could benefit some Republicans. Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, top Democratic targets, were among those voting for the Collins plan. Though the immediate legislative prospects look dim, the gun control debate is not going to simmer down anytime soon. Perceiving a shift in congressional sentiment and a political advantage, gun control advocates are not about to give up now. Stay tuned.

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