WASHINGTON – The extremely rare sit-in by Democrats in the House chamber may have been, as Speaker Paul Ryan claimed, a “publicity stunt.” But it was a righteous one that may improve the prospects for meaningful gun control.
It won’t happen immediately. Even after 49 innocent victims died in the Orlando massacre – the worst such shooting in modern U.S. history – Republicans remain adamantly opposed to any new legislation that might keep powerful weapons out of the hands of the next would-be mass murderer.
If Republicans care more about maintaining their standing with the National Rifle Association than saving lives, that’s their choice. But polls show majority support for sensible new gun control measures – and members of Congress should at least have to go on record. Democrats are demanding that the House do its job: vote yes or no.
One of the bills Democrats want the House to vote on should be a no-brainer: expanding background checks for gun purchases. The other, which would deny the right to buy guns to individuals on the terrorism watch list, is in my view a tougher question. The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed “deep concerns” about relying on an “error-prone and unfair watchlisting system” to regulate access to firearms.
I wish the subject of the protest were, instead, a bill to ban military-style assault weapons of the kind used by Omar Mateen and so many other mass shooters. But if we are ever going to get to that point, the logjam has to be cleared. Something dramatic had to happen.
Enter Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a hero of the civil rights movement who knows something about thousand-mile journeys that start with a single step. Lewis also knows something about sit-ins, having staged more than a few, and it was in his office that a group of House Democrats came up with the idea of occupying the chamber to demand gun control votes.
They achieved no success, of course – not yet, at least.
The speaker of the House has sweeping powers and cannot easily be coerced into anything. Ryan called a recess and Republicans left the chamber, which meant that the C-SPAN cameras that televise House proceedings went dark; Democrats began streaming video of the sit-in via their cellphones. The spectacle of members of Congress sitting on the floor and staging a protest drew nationwide attention. Sympathizers dropped by, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who brought boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts. As the sit-in stretched into the evening, well-wishers had pizza delivered to the Capitol.
Ryan eventually brought the House back into session, to show it could function despite the ongoing protest, and then finally, in the middle of the night, ordered a recess until July 5. Republicans were free to scurry out of town.
So did the protest have any real impact? Certainly some, and potentially a lot.
First, the tactic rallied Democrats in both chambers to the gun control cause and put Republicans on notice that the issue won’t just go away. Mass shootings happen with depressing regularity, and by now everyone knows the drill: Congress argues about guns for a few days and then does nothing. The sit-in was not a part of the usual script, which makes the ending less certain.
Second, the protest drew widespread attention to the issue at a moment when the debate would otherwise be fading. Whether you thought the sit-in was courageous or absurd, you paid attention. Given what we know about public opinion, it is helpful for advocates of gun control to have the issue in the news. People say they want to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people. Republicans should have to explain why they disagree.
Third, and perhaps most important, the sit-in means that gun control will be an issue in the coming election. Is this smart politics? I believe it is.
Republicans are badly divided and will be led by a nominee rejected by much of the party establishment. Democrats see the potential for winning both the White House and the Senate and making major gains in the House – but only if the party is united and enthusiastic. The gun issue can help motivate the party faithful.
Taking action to prevent Orlando-style killings should also appeal to independent voters. Republicans take the position that nothing at all should be done to keep the next mass shooter from buying an assault rifle. Do they really believe that swing voters agree?
The sit-in was a spark. It might start a fire.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.