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The gun-control debate took a historic turn Wednesday, as Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives staged the first sit-in in Congress’ history, taking the floor of the House and demanding a vote on what is called the “no fly, no buy” restriction on gun purchases. This narrow provision would deny people on the federal “no-fly list” the ability to legally buy a gun. The protest was launched by Atlanta’s congressional representative John Lewis, the legendary civil-rights activist. “Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you have to make a way out of no way,” Lewis said from the well of the House. “There comes a time when you have to say something, when you have to make a little noise. This is the time. Now is the time to get in the way.” He left the podium and, joined by many other members of Congress, gave new meaning to “speaking from the House floor” by sitting down in front of the podium and refusing to get up.
Both chambers of Congress have television cameras that feed the speeches from the floor directly to the national cable channel, C-SPAN. But the cameras are controlled by Republicans, and were turned off. At least two House members who participated in the sit-in provided live video streams of the protest speeches, using phones and social-media streaming video applications. C-SPAN, in its own form of protest, then picked up and broadcast these live streams, making the Republican-censored demand for gun control available to the TV-viewing public. “House cameras not permitted to show sit-in,” C-SPAN noted at the bottom of the screen.
“No bill, no break! No bill, no break,” the gathered Congress members chanted between speakers, raucously breaking with traditional congressional decorum. One after another, members of Congress – all Democrats – rose to speak in support of a simple vote on the “no fly, no buy” provision, which Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., proposed as an amendment to a Homeland Security appropriation bill earlier Wednesday. Like its counterpart in the Senate, proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Lowey’s amendment was voted down by every member of the committee’s Republican majority. According to Lowey, the amendment would have given “the attorney general the authority to block the sale of firearms to known or suspected terrorists, if the attorney general has a reasonable belief that the firearm would be used in connection with terrorism.”
The Republican majorities in both the U.S House and Senate consistently parrot the National Rifle Association’s talking points. Paramount among the criticisms from the NRA is that innocent people might well be put on the terrorist watch list. “Protections should be put in place that allow law-abiding Americans who are wrongly put on a watch list to be removed,” stated Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. It is certainly admirable to raise the issue of these flawed “terror watch lists” and how people can get off them. But many Republicans are only raising the issue now for the first time, suggesting that all they care about is that the lists limit the number of people who can buy weapons.
Nita Lowey’s amendment, which includes a look back at people who were on the terrorist watch list at any time in the previous five years, would have flagged the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen. A U.S. citizen, he had been investigated by the FBI twice in recent years for suspected terrorist sympathies, but had been cleared both times. He also was known to have beaten his first wife, who left him after just four months of marriage. Domestic violence is another important indicator in mass shootings. Despite these warning signs, Mateen legally bought the AR-style semi-automatic rifle he used to kill 49 people and injure more, just days before the killing.
“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,” John Lewis said just before the sit-in began. “The time for silence and patience is long gone. We are calling on the leadership of the House to bring common-sense gun-control legislation to the House floor. Give us a vote. Let us vote. We came here to do our jobs. We came here to work. The American people are demanding action.”
This historic protest was demanding what can only be called a meager measure, delaying suspected terrorists from buying guns. What about restoring the assault-weapons ban? These weapons, designed solely for the purpose of killing people, have been shown time and again to enable mass killings, from Columbine to Newtown to Aurora to San Bernardino to Orlando. John Lewis marched, sat down and was beaten in pursuit of fundamental change, in pursuit of civil rights. Perhaps this historic sit-in on the floor of Congress will spark true, meaningful, lasting gun control.