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U.S. House Democrats Stage Sit-In To Demand Vote On Gun Control

  • RFE/RL

Republicans in the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress sought to end a 16-hour sit-in protest by Democrats early on June 23 by adjourning for a recess that will last through July 5.

Sitting down on the floor of the House of Representatives, the Democrats vowed they would not allow Congress to break for the nation's July 4 holiday until the Republican-controlled legislature voted on gun-control legislation proposed in the aftermath of the country's latest mass shooting -- a massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Republican lawmakers appeared to catch the Democrats off guard in the middle of the night.

They abruptly called for a vote on a funding bill to fight the Zika virus, permitting no debate, and then immediately adjourned the legislative session through July 4.

But Democrats have promised to continue their protest without cameras, lights, or a legislative session.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said: "Just because they have left, it doesn't mean we have to take no as an answer."

Earlier, as the protest extended into the early morning hours of June 23, as many as 100 lawmakers sat on the carpeted floor of the chamber and shouted down attempts by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan to restore order.

The unruly scene was broadcast from the Democrats' cell phones and their feeds were picked up by C-SPAN after Republicans, who overwhelmingly oppose gun controls, forced the congressional cable network to shut down its cameras.

Democrats posted the Capitol's main telephone number on social-media accounts, and the switchboard was overwhelmed by constituents calling to demand a vote.

Democrats also encouraged a torrent of supporters to post messages on Twitter under the hashtag #NoBillNoBreak.

Late on June 22, after the sit-in protest had gone on for 10 hours, Ryan stepped to the podium to gavel the House into session and tried to conduct votes on routine business.

But Democrats chanted "No bill, no break!" and waved pieces of paper with the names of gun victims as the House struggled to conduct legislative matters.

With Ryan pounding his gavel and attempting to announce the legislative agenda, Democrats shouted "Shame! Shame! Shame!" and sang the civil rights-era protest song We Shall Overcome.

It was a radical departure from the normally businesslike conduct of the lower house of Congress.

Democrats want Republicans to yield to their demands to hold votes on bills to prevent the sale of guns to suspected terrorists who are banned from traveling on airplanes by a so-called "no-fly" watch list.

The Orlando shooter, who killed 49 people with an automatic assault rifle he purchased days before the massacre, had been on that watch list in 2013 and 2014.

"We have to occupy the floor of the House until there is action," said Representative John Lewis, a veteran civil rights leader.

Lewis said refusal by Republicans to vote on the gun-control bills had forced Democrats to resort to the sit-in protest techniques he and others used during the 1960s.

"We have turned a deaf ear to the blood of innocents. We are blind to a crisis. Where is our courage?" he asked.

Pelosi invoked not only the Orlando shootings but a series of other mass murders in recent years -- including the 2015 attack at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist who killed nine people.

"We are in for the long haul here," Pelosi vowed, saying legislators intend to continue their sit-in for as long as it takes to get a vote on a bill.

Ryan, the Republican congressional leader, dismissed the protest as "nothing more than a publicity stunt."

In an interview with CNN, Ryan voted that he would not allow a vote on curbing the sale of guns in the United States.

"We're not going to take away a citizen's constitutional rights without due process," he said.

President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton both tweeted their support for the Democrats.

Outside the Capitol, several hundred people gathered in solidarity at a rally organized by the Everytown for Gun Safety advocacy group.

Democratic senators also joined the protest, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and Chris Murphy, a Connecticut senator who had waged a similar nearly 15-hour vigil last week to force votes in the Senate on gun legislation.

Republican and Democratic versions of gun control legislation both failed to pass the Senate on June 20, but senators from both parties are pushing for a compromise.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on June 22 that he would schedule a vote on a bipartisan measure that would prevent about 109,000 people on "no-fly" and other surveillance lists from purchasing guns.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP