Rep. John Lewis has faced worse than the wrath of House Republicans.
As a student at Fisk University in Nashville Lewis, D-Ga, became a leader of the sit ins that desegregated lunch counters in that city. He went on to become a leader of the civil rights movement, being jailed many times for his efforts. His skull was fractured when he lead marchers attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. who were attacked by police.
So, no surprise that Lewis, now 79 with almost 30 years in the House, chose to lead his fellow House Democrats in a sit-in on the House floor to protest that body’s inaction on gun control legislation. And it’s no surprise that Lewis seemed deeply unmoved by Republican attempts to ignore, shame and shout down the protestors.
“This is nothing more than a publicity stunt,” huffed House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.
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Certainly Ryan is correct in believing the aim of the demonstration was to focus attention on the issue. Staging nonviolent events that disrupt normal business — such as sit-ins at lunch counters or throwing tea into Boston Harbor — is a strategy dissidents have used for decades to draw attention to injustice.
Where he’s wrong is in calling it “nothing more.”
One of the many frustrations about gun violence in the United States — where about 90 people a day are killed by guns — is that despite the horror, outrage and prayers that follow each mass killing very little happens legislatively to stop the carnage.
The House Democrats were protesting Ryan’s refusal to even bring two bills to the floor for a vote. “We have been denied the opportunity to have a single vote, not one, not once,” said Elizabeth Esty, who won her Connecticut seat in 2012, about a month before the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, which she represents.
The Democrats were pushing for votes on two measures that polls show have widespread, bipartisan public support: preventing suspected terrorists on the federal government’s no-fly list from being able to buy guns, and making background checks mandatory on all gun purchases — including those online and at gun shows.
Requiring universal background checks is an important first line of defense against guns getting into the hands of people who should not have them such as violent criminals and the mentally ill. It is hard to imagine how anything but fear of losing a perfect rating from the almighty National Rifle Association could stymie a vote on it.
There are legitimate concerns about what’s called the no-fly/no-buy proposal that stem from weaknesses in the list itself. But that is no reason to deny members of Congress the opportunity to debate and vote on it in public session.
Ryan was having none of it. With dozens of his colleagues sitting on the floor before his rostrum, chanting and holding signs with names and photographs of civilians killed by guns he called recesses, including one from about 10:30 Wednesday night until 2:30 Thursday morning, which turned off the microphones and cameras that were recording the action.
But, lawmakers, including Kentucky’s John Yarmuth, armed with cell phones and other devices, were able to tweet, post photos and videos and even stream video of the protest.
The sit-in ended after the House went into recess until July 5. The protesting members pledged to take the fight back to their districts and return with new actions planned to force the chamber to take up gun control.
As Lewis told his fellow protesters Wednesday night: “Sometimes by sitting down, by sitting in, you’re standing up.”