Md. Democrats join House sit-in over gun control; protest gets heated in chamber

, and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Democratic members of Maryland's delegation took part in House gun control sit in.

House Democrats, frustrated over the lack of progress on gun control, staged a sit-in on the chamber's floor Wednesday, and vowed not to leave until Republican leaders allowed a vote on a proposal to ban people on terrorism watch lists from buying firearms.

The unusual standoff, which began in the morning, continued into the night and included chants of "No bill, no break!", brought senior leaders and members of the Senate — including the Democratic members of Maryland's congressional delegation — to the floor throughout the day. Republicans quickly called a recess, which had the effect of limiting live coverage of the scene.

House Republicans attempted to bring the chamber back to order at around 10 p.m. and hold a vote on unrelated legislation, but Democrats shouted House Speaker Paul Ryan down, and the situation devolved into a yelling match that forced the House back into recess.

As Ryan left the podium, Democrats booed and some shouted, "Shame, shame."

Democrats pointed to polls that show public support for some gun control provisions, and said that the shooting of an Orlando night club this month — as well as those in San Bernardino, Calif. last year, and Newtown, Conn., in 2012 — had left Americans eager for Washington to act.

"Whether we win or lose, we think the American people deserve a vote," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of the Southern Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House. "That's all we're asking for."

House Republican officials called Wednesday's protest a "Democratic publicity stunt." In 2008, the GOP, then in the minority, staged a similar effort to draw attention to soaring gas prices.

Ryan told CNN there would be no vote. "We're not going to take away a citizen's constitutional rights without due process," he said.

Republicans emerging from a closed-door meeting said they would hold votes on other legislation, but not the gun votes demanded by the Democrats.

It was not clear late Wednesday how long Democrats intended to occupy the chamber, or how the confrontation might be resolved.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen predicted that lawmakers were willing to see the effort through the night, and possibly for several days.

"We're saying today, no more moments of silence," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "When this body, the House of Representatives, refuses to take action, it's complicit in the injustice."

The standoff came a week after Democrats in the Senate, using the rules in that chamber, launched a filibuster to prompt a vote on similar legislation.

They got the vote on Monday; the legislation failed.

Shortly after the House gaveled in Wednesday for what was scheduled to be a routine day of legislating, Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia strode into the chamber, stood at a podium and called on his colleagues to join him.

Within moments, about two dozen lawmakers gathered around the lectern as he spoke.

Then many sat, legs crossed, on the chamber's blue-carpeted floor. By midafternoon, scores more had arrived to show their support.

As a young man, Lewis marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Democrats' action on Wednesday reminded some of the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement.

"I wondered, what would bring this body to take action?" Lewis thundered Wednesday. "What is right, what is just for the people of this country?

"They have lost hundreds and thousands of innocent people to gun violence. What has this body done? Nothing. Not one thing."

The declaration of a recess automatically turned off the cameras that usually provide live coverage to C-SPAN. But it hardly mattered. Lawmakers took to social media, tweeting and posting status updates from the floor. A lawmaker streamed live video from the floor on Periscope, which C-SPAN picked up and broadcast.

With both the House and Senate controlled by Republicans, and the National Rifle Association opposed to most of the bills that have been proposed, Democrats face long odds of passing new gun restrictions.

The Senate this week rejected four proposals to restrict gun purchases — including one that would have prevented terror suspects like Orlando shooter Omar Mateen from buying guns, and another that would require background checks for all gun sales, even informal purchases.

After a 15-hour filibuster led by Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, votes fell largely along party lines.

A compromise bipartisan proposal introduced by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and backed by leading Democrats has not been scheduled for a vote.

With the House scheduled to recess Friday for the long Independence Day holiday break, Democrats were anxious to press for action.

Polls show most Americans favor new gun restrictions, but many Republicans believe existing guns laws are adequate.

Several senators, including Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, walked across the Capitol to join their peers in the House. Lawmakers took turns in the chamber sharing personal stories from their own lives, and their congressional districts, of lives lost to gun violence. Maryland's senators, Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin, also joined the sit-in.

The effort appeared to be largely organic.

"Congress has a basic duty to protect the American people, and that means putting in place common sense gun safety laws that could help reduce the frequency and carnage of mass shootings in America," Rep. John Sarbanes said in a statement.

Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, Maryland's sole Republican in Congress, called the sit-in a distraction.

"Once again, Democrats in Congress are politicizing the gun control debate and distracting us from addressing the real threat of radical Islamic terrorism," he said in a statement. "Instead of offering up solutions, they have chosen to gather together and disrupt House business, including approving funding to fight Zika, which is now being delayed by their action."

Gun control advocates praised the House Democrats for forcing attention on the issue.

"As Dr. King used to say, 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,'" said Lucy McBath, faith and outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety, who lost a teenager to gun violence. "We are seeing the arc bend before our very eyes — Americans demand that we do more to disarm hate."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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