Will sit­ting-in make Congress stand up?

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Eugene Robin­son

— The ex­tremely rare sit-in by Democrats in the House cham­ber may have been, as Speaker Paul Ryan claimed, a “pub­lic­ity stunt.” But it was a right­eous one that may im­prove the prospects for mean­ing­ful gun con­trol.

It won’t hap­pen im­me­di­ately. Even af­ter 49 in­no­cent vic­tims died in the Or­lando mas­sacre — the worst such shoot­ing in mod­ern U.S. his­tory — Repub­li­cans re­main adamantly op­posed to any new leg­is­la­tion that might keep pow­er­ful weapons out of the hands of the next would-be mass mur­derer.

If Repub­li­cans care more about main­tain­ing their stand­ing with the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion than sav­ing lives, that’s their choice. But polls show ma­jor­ity sup­port for sen­si­ble new gun con­trol mea­sures — and mem­bers of Congress should at least have to go on record. Democrats are de­mand­ing that the House do its job: vote yes or no.

One of the bills Democrats want the House to vote on should be a no-brainer: ex­pand­ing back­ground checks for gun pur­chases. The other, which would deny the right to buy guns to in­di­vid­u­als on the ter­ror­ism watch list, is in my view a tougher ques­tion. The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union has ex­pressed “deep con­cerns” about re­ly­ing on an “er­ror­prone and un­fair watch­list­ing sys­tem” to reg­u­late ac­cess to firearms.

I wish the sub­ject of the protest were, in­stead, a bill to ban mil­i­tarystyle as­sault weapons of the kind used by Omar Ma­teen and so many other mass shoot­ers. But if we are ever go­ing to get to that point, the log­jam has to be cleared. Some­thing dra­matic had to hap­pen.

En­ter Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a hero of the civil rights move­ment who knows some­thing about thousand-mile jour­neys that start with a sin­gle step. Lewis also knows some­thing about sit-ins, hav­ing staged more than a few, and it was in his of­fice that a group of House Democrats came up with the idea of oc­cu­py­ing the cham­ber to de­mand gun con­trol votes.

They achieved no suc­cess, course — not yet, at least.

The speaker of the House has sweep­ing pow­ers and can­not eas­ily be co­erced into any­thing. Ryan called a re­cess and Repub­li­cans left the cham­ber, which meant that the C-SPAN cam­eras that tele­vise House pro­ceed­ings went dark; Democrats be­gan stream­ing video of the sit-in via their cell­phones. The spec­ta­cle of mem­bers of Congress sit­ting on


of the floor and stag­ing a protest drew na­tion­wide at­ten­tion. Sym­pa­thiz­ers dropped by, in­clud­ing Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren, DMass., who brought boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts. As the sit-in stretched into the evening, well-wish­ers had pizza de­liv­ered to the Capi­tol.

Ryan even­tu­ally brought the House back into ses­sion, to show it could func­tion de­spite the on­go­ing protest, and then fi­nally, in the mid­dle of the night, or­dered a re­cess until July 5. Repub­li­cans were free to scurry out of town.

So did the protest have any real im­pact? Cer­tainly some, and po­ten­tially a lot.

First, the tac­tic ral­lied Democrats in both cham­bers to the gun con­trol cause and put Repub­li­cans on no­tice that the is­sue won’t just go away. Mass shoot­ings hap­pen with de­press­ing reg­u­lar­ity, and by now ev­ery­one knows the drill: Congress ar­gues about guns for a few days and then does noth­ing. The sit-in was not a part of the usual script, which makes the end­ing less certain.

Se­cond, the protest drew wide­spread at­ten­tion to the is­sue at a mo­ment when the de­bate would oth­er­wise be fad­ing. Whether you thought the sit-in was coura­geous or ab­surd, you paid at­ten­tion. Given what we know about pub­lic opin­ion, it is help­ful for ad­vo­cates of gun con­trol to have the is­sue in the news. Peo­ple say they want to keep dan­ger­ous weapons out of the hands of dan­ger­ous peo­ple. Repub­li­cans should have to ex­plain why they dis­agree.

Third, and per­haps most im­por­tant, the sit-in means that gun con­trol will be an is­sue in the com­ing elec­tion. Is this smart pol­i­tics? I be­lieve it is.

Repub­li­cans are badly di­vided and will be led by a nom­i­nee re­jected by much of the party es­tab­lish­ment. Democrats see the po­ten­tial for win­ning both the White House and the Se­nate and mak­ing ma­jor gains in the House — but only if the party is united and en­thu­si­as­tic. The gun is­sue can help mo­ti­vate the party faith­ful.

Tak­ing ac­tion to pre­vent Or­lan­dostyle killings should also ap­peal to in­de­pen­dent vot­ers. Repub­li­cans take the po­si­tion that noth­ing at all should be done to keep the next mass shooter from buy­ing an as­sault ri­fle. Do they re­ally be­lieve that swing vot­ers agree?

The sit-in was a spark. It might start a fire.

Eugene Robin­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­post.com.

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