US Democrats stage gun law sit-in protest in Congress

US Democrats staged a rare sit-in the House of Representatives demanding that the Republican-led body vote on gun-control legislation following the Orlando nightclub massacre. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
US Democrats staged a rare sit-in the House of Representatives demanding that the Republican-led body vote on gun-control legislation following the Orlando nightclub massacre. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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US Democrats have carried a remarkable sit-in on the floor of the House into a second day, disrupting the business of Congress with demands for gun-control votes in unruly scenes broadcast live to the world.

Republicans branded the move a publicity stunt before summarily adjourning the chamber until after the Fourth of July.

Even after the House adjourned at around 3.15am on Thursday, and Republicans streamed towards the exits, Democrats stayed on the House floor, shouting “No bill no break!” and waving papers with the names of gun victims written in black.

Representative Maxine Waters, of California, said she was ready to stay “until Hell freezes over”.

Gradually the Democrats began to wind down their protest, but a core group lingered, some wrapped in blankets or resting on pillows.

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With a crowd cheering them on from outside the Capitol and many more following the theatrics on social media, Democrats declared success in dramatising the argument for action to stem gun violence.

“Just because they cut and run in the dark of night, just because they have left doesn’t mean we are taking no for an answer,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“We won’t stop until the job is done,” the Californian declared to fellow Democrats camped out in the well of the House in the early hours of the morning, saying the party had changed “the dynamic of what happens” concerning guns.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, said the public should not be happy with a Republican majority which shut down the House and disregarded “the unfinished business of the American people”.

Republicans fiercely resisted the Democratic pressure, saying their colleagues had accomplished nothing other than disrupting the business of the House to score political points.

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“Their PR stunt can’t prevent us from doing our jobs with dignity, that’s what we’re here for,” said Representative Kevin Cramer, of North Dakota. Like other Republicans, he shrugged off the prospect of a political blowback from the Democrats’ manoeuvre, which was attracting approval from the White House and showbusiness celebrities like Kim Kardashian.

“I have no objection to them making fools of themselves on TV, in North Dakota it works very well for me,” he said.

A burst of chaotic floor action early on Thursday capped more than 15 straight hours of Democratic protests in the well of the House and captured the attention of a Washington gridlocked over guns despite the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Senate Democrats undertook a nearly 15-hour filibuster last week in fighting for the same cause.

House Republicans used their prerogatives as the majority party to muscle through a partisan Bill funding the Zika crisis with no time for debate, overruling Democrat objections and then moving to adjourn the House into next month as Democrats cried “Shame, Shame!”

Republicans shut off the cameras in the House gallery throughout most of the protest, but Democrats used their mobile phones to capture the action, and C-Span carried the feeds live in an unprecedented move.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said the Bills pushed by Democrats, to expand background checks and keep people on the no-fly list from getting guns, would take away people’s constitutional rights and deprive them of due process, and he noted similar legislation was already rejected in the Senate earlier in the week.

The protest began at around 11.30am on Wednesday, unfolding on the House floor with little advance warning from the Democrats.

By evening, 168 House Democrats - out of 188 - and 34 Senate Democrats joined the protest, according to the House minority leader’s office.

One after another, they spoke of the need for gun control and talked of constituents who had been killed.

Representative Debbie Dingell, of Michigan, whose husband former Representative John Dingell is a longtime NRA supporter, won thunderous applause and a standing ovation after she talked in personal terms about her experience growing up in a home with gun violence.

Scattered around the House floor were signs reading “Disarm Hate”. Visitors watched from the galleries. A crowd of several hundred gun control advocates gathered outside the Capitol and cheered as Democrats addressed them.

The sit-in - in which Georgia’s Representative John Lewis played a major role - had the look of a 1960s-style protest, as some politicians sat on the floor, others in their seats. The House chamber grew increasingly chaotic as the night wore on, and some politicians took breaks on pillows and blankets.

Republicans had staged a similar protest in 2008. Democrats controlling the House at the time turned off the cameras amid a GOP push for a vote to expand oil and gas drilling. Republicans occupied the floor, delivering speech after speech after Ms Pelosi, then the House speaker, sent politicians bolting to their August recess. Ms Pelosi at that time had ordered the cameras to be turned off.

C-Span, a cable and satellite network that provides continual coverage of House and Senate floor proceedings, does not control the cameras. They are run on authorisation by legislative leaders. Although the cameras were turned off on Wednesday, politicians relied on social media to transmit video, using Facebook, Twitter and Periscope.

C-Span broadcast live video streamed on Periscope and Facebook from politicians’ accounts. Democrats posted the Capitol’s main telephone number, which was overwhelmed, and urged constituents to call and request a vote. They also encouraged tweeting under the hashtag #NoBillNoBreak.

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