House Democrats take push for gun control to home districts

House Democrats take push for gun control to home districts
Bishop Chilton Knudsen, center at podium, opens a news conference to recognize National Day of Action for Gun Violence Prevention at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland Cathedral of the Incarnation. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Hoping to build on the attention they captured with a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives last week, Democratic lawmakers in Baltimore and across the country vowed Wednesday to keep pressing Republicans for votes on gun-control legislation but acknowledged that they have not yet developed a strategy to do that.

The lawmakers, who have returned to their districts for the July 4 congressional recess, held news conferences to reiterate demands for votes on legislation that would require tougher background checks and prohibit suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms.


Neither policy is likely to advance, given that similar legislation failed in the Senate this month, but Democrats sense that gun control might be a powerful political issue in this presidential election year and they are eager to put Republicans on record as opposing ideas that have broad support in national polls.

"Our message is very simple: There will be no more business as usual in the House of Representatives until we have an opportunity to take action on this issue," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, who is running for the Maryland Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. "So long as Congress does not take action in response to the carnage, Congress itself is implicated in that carnage."

But exactly what "no more business as usual" will look like when lawmakers return to the Capitol next week remains unclear. Democrats have said they do not know whether they will continue the sit-in that ended in a chaotic shout-down of House Speaker Paul Ryan last week. Democrats ended the sit-in after 25 hours once Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, adjourned the chamber for the recess.

"The message is, there will be no more business as usual," Van Hollen said. "Exactly how that's implemented will be decided by the members."

Republicans have described the effort as an election-year publicity stunt and have criticized Democrats for fundraising off the sit-in.

The Baltimore event, staged on the steps of the Cathedral of the Incarnation, the cathedral church of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, also drew Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes, both of Baltimore County.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen, dozens of advocates — such as Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence —- and victims of gun violence also attended.

"The speaker of the House called what we did a publicity stunt," Cummings said. "I have a word for Speaker Ryan. Eighty-five percent of Americans have said ... that those who are suspected terrorists should not have guns. Duh."

Even before the deadly shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando this month, Van Hollen had been working to make gun control a central issue in his race to succeed Mikulski, who is retiring.

His Republican opponent, Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, voted against state legislation in 2013 that now requires a person to obtain a license before buying a handgun. Last year, Van Hollen introduced a measure in Congress that would nudge states toward adopting similar laws.

Szeliga said she would take a broader approach to addressing violence than focusing solely on guns, tying the issue both to "radical Islam that has spilled over to our country" as well as "those who are severely mentally disturbed and have a tendency to act out violently."

"Career politicians want to give you a simple solution because it's easier for them, but the problem is far more complicated," Szeliga said.

Ryan and other Republicans have largely dismissed the Democratic effort, noting the failed votes in the Senate. Ryan said the sit-in was "a low moment for the People's House" and told WISN-TV in Wisconsin this week that GOP leaders "will not tolerate" more disruptions.

Ruppersberger said Ryan was playing "hardball," and took a swing at the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump, without naming him.


"I'm getting really tired as an American to hear a certain individual keep saying we're going to make America great again," Ruppersberger said. "This problem with respect to people being slaughtered in our streets has got to stop."

Ruppersberger's Republican opponent in the 2nd District said he doubted the legislation that Democrats are touting would have an impact on the problem of mass shootings.

"The idea of Dutch Ruppersberger squatting on the floor of the People's House in an attempt to squash Second Amendment rights with a bill that doesn't work, I think, is an embarrassment," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough of Baltimore County.

McDonough said he supports "a reasonable solution" on gun control, but wants to first see improvements made to terror watch lists, such as giving people mistakenly identified as potential terrorists a process to remove their names.