WASHINGTON — Led by civil rights veteran Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Long Island Reps. Kathleen Rice, Steve Israel and Gregory Meeks joined more than two dozen Democratic members of Congress to conduct a sit-in to demand a vote on gun legislation to address mass shootings.
The unusual protest move by Democrats who occupied the well of the House floor brought the business of the day to a halt and prompted House Republican leaders to call a recess and cut off the video feed shown on the House website and C-SPAN.
“We cannot continue to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the reality of mass gun violence in our nation. Deadly mass shootings are becoming more and more frequent,” Lewis said in a speech that began the protest at 11:18 a.m.
“This is a fight. It is not an opinion. The time for silence and patience is long gone. Give us a vote. Let us have a vote. We came here to do our jobs. We came here to work. The American people are demanding action,” Lewis said.
Into the 10th hour, Speaker Paul Ryan attempted to restore order as the protest stretched into the night. Ryan stepped up to the podium to gavel the House into session and hold votes on routine business. Angry Democrats chanted “No bill, no break!” and waved pieces of paper with the names of gun victims, continuing their protest in the well of the House even as lawmakers voted on a previously scheduled and unrelated measure to overturn a veto by President Barack Obama.
Ryan dismissed the protest as “nothing more than a publicity stunt,” and in an interview with CNN, made clear there would be no vote.
Shortly after Ryan left the lectern and voting continued, Democrats began singing “We Shall Overcome,” still holding up the names of gun victims.
Echoing his days during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Lewis said, “There comes a time . . . when you have to make a little noise, when you have to move your feet. This is the time. Now is the time to get in the way. . . . We will be silent no more.”
Lewis and other Democrats said they took action to force the House Republican leaders to allow votes on two gun-control bills this week, before the House takes a recess next week. The House will return for two weeks in July then recesses for the rest of July and all of August.
The Republican-controlled House has blocked gun legislation, including Rep. Peter King’s bill dubbed “No Fly, No Buy,” which would prevent weapons purchases by suspected terrorists and others on terror watch lists, including those barring them from boarding commercial airliners.
Through their aides and in their tweets and Facebooks posts, frustrated Democrats said they want to pass legislation.
King (R-Seaford) did not take part in the sit-in. “This is too important an issue to be a stunt,” King said in a telephone interview.
King said Republicans are “making a serious mistake” by not taking up his bill. But instead of tying up business as the Democrats are doing, he said, both parties should work together to craft a compromise, like the one Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is attempting to fashion in the Senate.
House Democrats acted two days after the Senate blocked four measures in votes largely along party lines to stop gun purchases by suspected terrorists and tighten background checks. Monday’s failed votes occurred eight days after a gunman who professed allegiance to ISIS killed 49 people at an Orlando gay nightclub.
Rice (D-Garden City), a former Nassau County district attorney, said it was time to take action.
“I’ve held the hands of too many grieving mothers and fathers to just stand by while Congress refuses to do anything to address gun violence,” she said in a statement. “It’s unconscionable to continue doing nothing when we have common-sense bipartisan bills that we know would help prevent gun violence and that we know would pass if only they were put to a vote.”
Israel (D-Huntington), who chairs House Democratic messages, will continue to push the effort, said his spokesman Joe Knickrehm.
“The congressman is leading the charge the rest of today and week to force Speaker Ryan to hold a vote on ‘No Fly, No Buy.’ There will be more action,” Knickrehm said.
Meeks (D-St. Albans) was visible on C-SPAN before House leaders cut off the camera, and tweeted photos of him sitting on the House floor by Lewis.
After Republicans shut down the video feed in the House, C-SPAN switched to a feed provided by the social media application Periscope, which often froze but provided some coverage of the sit-in.