San Francisco Chronicle

Dems’ sit-in over inaction on guns shutters House

- By Carolyn Lochhead

WASHINGTON — Furious over Republican inaction on gun violence, House Democrats, including dozens from California, staged a rare and spontaneou­s sit-in on the House floor stretched into Thursday morning, forcing an end to regular business and a shutdown of official live coverage in the chamber.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said her caucus had planned various “dilatory actions” to draw attention to the issue, but nothing like what happened after Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon, stood at the

podium and asked his colleagues just before 11:30 a.m. to join him in a protest over House Republican leaders’ refusal to consider legislatio­n to restrict gun sales. As he was speaking, Republican­s abruptly shut down the chamber, cut off his microphone and ordered that C-SPAN’s live television coverage be discontinu­ed.

Undaunted, Democratic lawmakers who had joined in the sit-in on the House’s bluecarpet­ed floor turned to social media, broadcasti­ng photos and videos of what was going on, and the protest soon consumed cable television news shows. By early afternoon, more than a dozen senators had arrived at the House to join in.

The sit-in was well into its 10th hour, when House Speaker Paul Ryan, R.-Wis attempted to announce the business of the day, pounding down his gavel over shouting. “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Democrats yelled, but Ryan left the lectern. Then Democrats began singing “We Shall Overcome,” holding up the names of gun victims.

“No bill, no break,” the protesting lawmakers shouted, demanding that Ryan, keep the House in session through its planned break next week to vote on gun legislatio­n.

Ryan said he would not bow to the demand for a vote, and as the sit-in extended into the evening, there were suggestion­s he would attempt to clear the House floor. But Pelosi said members were ready to be arrested.

“The higher the profile of our activism, the bigger the risk to them,” she said.

Rep. Eric Swalwell of Dublin said the Democrats were driven by constituen­t indignatio­n over legislativ­e inaction after the carnage left by gun violence in Orlando, San Bernardino, Charleston, S.C., Newtown, Conn., and other places. On Monday, the Republican­led Senate turned down four bills, three of which would have restricted the sale of firearms or expanded background checks.

“People are wondering why we are so powerless in the most powerful place in the world,” Swalwell said. “People are fed up with feeling powerless. We didn’t come here to do nothing.”

Nearly 100 Democrats joined Lewis to demand that Ryan allow a vote on measures to expand background checks and block gun purchases by some suspected terrorists in the aftermath of the June 12 massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, where a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53. As the day went on, the lawmakers stood one by one, giving unscripted speeches and often naming the victims of gun violence in their own communitie­s. They continued their speeches well past midnight.

Ryan spent part of Wednesday afternoon presenting his ideas to replace the Affordable Care Act at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservati­ve think tank. In an email, his office called the Democratic action a “publicity stunt.”

Recess declared

“The House cannot operate without members following the rules of the institutio­n, so the House has recessed subject to the call of the chair,” the Ryan’s spokeswoma­n AshLee Strong said in the statement.

The protest followed the Senate’s failure Monday to pass measures, one by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that sought to prevent people whose names appear on terrorist watch lists from obtaining guns, and another that would expand background checks to people buying weapons at gun shows and on the Internet.

House Democrats became enraged, Swalwell said, after the Orlando shooting, when they sought votes on similar measures, but Republican leaders refused, asking instead for a “moment of silence” for the Orlando victims.

Rep. Mike Thompson of St. Helena, a gun sportsman who joined the sit-in, has led a House Democratic task force on gun violence, since the 2012 shootings in Newtown that took the lives of 20 elementary schoolchil­dren and six teachers. Since then, he said, more than 34,000 people have been killed in gun violence, including 1,158 in what have been categorize­d as mass killings involving three or more people.

“And what have we had, 30 moments of silence,” Thompson said. Thompson cited polls showing that 90 percent of Republican­s support keeping guns away from people on terrorist watch lists.

C-SPAN eventually resumed intermitte­nt House coverage through a jury-rigged smartphone feed from Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego.

Meanwhile, the GOP intransige­nce on measures to prevent people on terrorist watch lists from obtaining weapons began showing cracks Wednesday as a few Republican­s and Senate Democratic leaders began coalescing around a bill by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. The bill, a narrower version of Feinstein’s bill, would ban gun purchases to people who are listed on a federal no-fly list as known or suspected as terrorists.

Republican­s had argued that the federal government makes too many mistakes in compiling the watch lists, the largest of which includes 1 million people. The no-fly list is a tiny fraction of that — an estimated 81,000 people, fewer than 1,000 of whom are classified as “U.S. persons.”

Pelosi’s view

Pelosi said the Collins measure was too narrow, but said if it could pass the Senate, it would provide a starting point that could open the door to legislatio­n in the House. Banning terrorists from obtaining weapons legally and expanding background checks to all commercial gun sales has bipartisan support and would pass the House if Republican­s would permit a vote, she said.

Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, who also took part in the protest, told The Chronicle, “We have to shame Republican­s into realizing they’re complicit” in the deaths of innocent people because of their failure to act.

“We’re not going to tolerate this any more,” she said.

Wednesday’s protest was not the first time House Democrats had staged a sit-in on Capitol Hill. In 1995, Democrats refused to leave the chamber without coming to an agreement on how to end a partial shutdown of the government. Freshman Democrats seized the floor in 1973 to express their views on a spending veto during an era when freshman lawmakers were encouraged to be seen and not heard.

House Republican­s held a similar protest in August 2008, when Democrats refused to vote on GOP energy bills at a time of soaring gas prices. After Pelosi, who was then speaker, had declared the House out of session for the summer recess, Republican­s took to the floor to give speeches protesting Democratic inaction. Pelosi shut off the lights.

 ?? Rep. Chellie Pingree’s office ?? Members of Congress sit on the House floor backed by colleagues in a protest over the GOP’s refusal to vote on gun measures.
Rep. Chellie Pingree’s office Members of Congress sit on the House floor backed by colleagues in a protest over the GOP’s refusal to vote on gun measures.

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