WASHINGTON (CN) – In a rare move, more than 50 Democratic lawmakers seized the House floor Wednesday afternoon to demand a vote on gun control in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Led by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the representatives have vowed to hold the floor until their demands – to block gun sales to people on the no fly and terror watch lists, and for universal background checks for all gun purchases – are met.
“No bill, no break!” they chanted, imploring the House to skip recess next week to work on gun-control legislation.
“Take responsibility and give us a vote, give us a vote today!” shouted Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., to wild applause and cheers from his colleagues.
Lawmakers trickled in and out of the boisterous House chamber, as many of their colleagues – including Lewis – sat on the floor in front of a podium hosting an endless stream of speakers.
The floor periodically burst into applause, cheers and chants as speaker after speaker delivered impassioned speeches imploring congressional action on gun control.
“Give us an opportunity, Mr. Speaker, to do our responsibility for the sake of America,” Garamendi pleaded.
“Universal background checks, what’s wrong with that?” he said.
“More than 2,000 people on the no-fly list have been able to buy a gun,” Garamendi said, to which his colleagues responded “no fly, no buy!”
“Mr. Speaker, where are you? Are you willing to lead? Are you willing to keep Americans safe or are you hiding?” Garamendi said.
Several senators, including Sens. Chris Murphy, Al Franken, Cory Booker, Ed Markey and Mazie Hirono, came to show their support for the House colleagues, and for what Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., called a “sitibuster.”
“I wanted to congratulate Jim Langevin and David Cicilline, my Rhode Island colleagues,” Whitehouse said in an interview, referring to two fellow Democratic congressmen. “They must feel like they’ve discovered the tunnel to daylight. Suddenly you can actually do something in the minority in the house. Who knew?”
The Senate failed to pass four gun-control measures on Monday, all of which stemmed from a 15-hour filibuster led by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., as Capitol Hill responded to the shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that killed 49 and injured 53.
The Senate will vote later this month on a compromise bill based on one of the failed proposals that Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, put forward on Tuesday. It has some bipartisan support and would bar gun sales to 109,000 people, including roughly 2700 Americans on the no-fly list, as well as people listed on the selectee list, a watch list derived from the terrorist screening database.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is among the Democrats supporting the Republican proposal.
“I support Senator Collins’ legislation to keep guns and explosives out of the hands of terrorists,” Reid said in a statement. “Even though it may be a small step forward, at least it is a step forward. Democrats and Republicans are working together to find solutions and protect Americans from gun violence. The Senate should vote on Senator Collins’ amendment.”
Republicans have mostly opposed barring people on terror watch lists from buying guns, including the no-fly list, because of what they see as the lack of due process for people wrongly placed on the lists.
The American Civil Liberties Union also opposes the proposed legislation on that basis.
“Our nation’s watchlisting system is error-prone and unreliable because it uses vague and overbroad criteria and secret evidence to place individuals on blacklists without a meaningful process to correct government error and clear their names,” the ACLU said in a statement.
In 2014, the Intercept reported that 40 percent of those listed in the terrorist screening database have no known ties to terror groups.
The Collins proposal would contain a provision allowing U.S. citizens and green-card holders on the no-fly and selectee lists to fight denial of a gun purchase before an appeals court, with the burden on the government to prove the individual should be barred from buying a gun. The court would then have 14 days to make a decision.
Even though the lists could be error-prone, support for banning people on terror watch lists, including the no-fly list, is high among Americans. Lawmakers at the sit-in called unequivocally for the House to vote on the matter.
“We think we can win,” said Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
“Eighty to 90 percent of the American public supports the two pieces of legislation that we’re asking to be brought to the floor,” he told reporters, calling the “no fly, no buy” proposal “a reasonable constraint on letting people buy dangerous instruments.”
Whitehouse said the House “sitibuster” could push the Senate to act on the Collins amendment.
“I think actually the pressure here in the House is probably helpful to any effort in the Senate and will keep people’s attention on this,” Whitehouse said in an interview. “When you’ve got 80 to 90 percent of the American public saying they think we should do something, attention is pretty valuable.”
Meanwhile, a small crowd of young supporters gathered outside the House side of the Capitol to show solidarity with the sit-in.
“I think it’s very much needed to take a stronger stance against the inaction of congress,” said Alonzo Mendoza, 27, from El Paso, Texas. “For those who are doing the sit-in and putting people over profit, thank you very much. For those who are not doing anything about this, for putting profit over people – shame on you,” he said. “We’re going to keep on holding you accountable.”
Photo caption 1:
Californians Eric Swalwell (in tan suit) and Karen Bass (shown in the center) were among those who gathered outside the Capitol Wednesday to show support for a “sitibuster” by House Democrats. Photo by Tim Ryan.
Photo caption 2:
This photo provided by Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., shows Democrat members of Congress, including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., center, and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., left, participate in sit-down protest Wednesday, seeking a a vote on gun control measures on the floor of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Rep. John Yarmuth via AP)
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