Wednesday afternoon, Representative John Lewis went on the House floor to give a speech. "We cannot continue to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the reality of mass gun violence in our nation," the civil rights icon said. "Deadly mass shootings are becoming more and more frequent. Mr. Speaker, this is a fact. It is not an opinion. We must remove the blinders. The time for silence and patience is long gone."
And then the 76-year-old sat on the floor. He stayed there all night, for more than 24 hours altogether, and was joined by dozens of other Democratic legislators.
The House has adjourned for a Fourth of July break, and won't return until next month.
What does this all mean?
First, some important context.
You may have not noticed, because no one seems to be paying attention to it or anything, but it's an election year. That means that Congress doesn't get much work done, because its members are focused on other things, like making sure they have jobs next year. In total, the House is scheduled to be in session about 111 days this year.
When Congress is in session, the legislative process ricochets between being an audition for the following year and an excuse to craft hot takes about the opposition. Each party advances all the issues it thinks its base is most likely to be passionate about this year — legislation that the other party's base would hate to see enacted. Compromise, a necessity for most legislative business, is scorned in order to push voters to the polls. Everyone does this — and everybody accuses their opponent of doing it more. This act of legislative mimicry happens all the time, but it becomes more noticeable during election years — like what would happen if The Americans suddenly swapped out Keri Russell for Patti LuPone.
As a result, election years are great for talking about controversial legislation, but don't expect any of it to pass. Wednesday's sit-in was a perfect example of turning a controversial issue increasingly beloved by one party into a giant electoral imperative. Whether you think that is a great thing or annoying depends on what you think about gun control and the two parties — or how high your government earnestness meter goes.
So why a sit-in?
Last week, Connecticut senator Chris Murphy staged a 15-hour filibuster in an effort to get a vote on various gun bills. The plan worked, but the bills failed. The House doesn’t have access to the same book of tricksy procedural charms — i.e., no equivalent to the filibuster — which puts the minority party in a tough position because it never gets an opportunity to vote on anything it wants.
Which is why they came up with the sit-in. Regardless of what you think about the politics of it all, it was a compulsively watchable moment, complete with much singing and much shouting of "No Bill, No Break!" Of course, watching it was somewhat difficult, as the Republican House leadership adjourned shortly after the sit-in began, leaving the C-SPAN cameras off and sending the official chronicler of Capitol business to capture politicians' Periscope and Facebook Live streams to broadcast instead. The protesting members carried photos of victims, and tweeted their outrage throughout the night. As an exercise in getting attention for a specific issue and mobilizing people who care about it, it was a success.
Was this unprecedented?
No. The Republican Party's response — trying to limit the impact of the sit-in by turning off the cameras — wasn't even a new tactic. Back in 2008 — another election year — House Republicans wanted to vote on an offshore-drilling bill. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi turned off the lights and the microphone, which, as Politico reported at the time, left people "talking in the dark."
But what about the gun bills? What are they? Are they going to get a vote?
There are several pieces of legislation that Democrats think deserve consideration in the House. The most prominent one would prohibit people on the no-fly list from buying firearms. This legislation is the very definition of an election-year gambit. As a response to two mass shootings, the ones in Orlando and San Bernardino, involving attackers who pledged allegiance to ISIS, it seems at first glance like a logical response to massacres that legislators should hope to prevent in the future. However, neither of these mass shootings involved people on the no-fly list. This measure would do little to prevent most of the firearm deaths that happen in America. The no-fly list is also a civil-liberties disaster, something that Democrats noted during the Bush administration. Many people mistakenly end up on the list. Even John Lewis was on a terror watch list.
The one thing that this bill is good at is making the Republican Party look bad for people who care about gun control, and making sure the voters who are fed up about the lack of a response to this issue rush to the polls in November. Which is why tweets like this exist.
Democrats also want the House to vote on a bill that researchers and advocates think could help prevent gun violence — expanding background checks to all private sales. A majority of Americans think this legislation is a good idea, but it never fares well during post-mass shooting debates, because many recent attackers have legally purchased the firearms they used to murder people. The Guardian notes, "[T]hat’s not the point. Expanding background checks on private sales of guns is a strategy designed to help crack down on the illicit market in guns used in everyday gun violence."
Why don't background checks pass?
Despite the fact that a majority of Americans want this to happen, it's still a partisan issue, especially at the federal level. And as Vox says, it's not just because the NRA gives money to conservatives; "the much bigger threat the gun rights group poses is its ability to mobilize and excite huge numbers of voters." It's not the money the NRA spends for candidates that you have to focus on, but the fear that they could spend money against a candidate, or at least convince one-issue voters to turn out in full force. Gun control groups — like the ones run by Mike Bloomberg and Gabby Giffords — and Democrats are obviously trying to turn people who care about background checks into the same monster mobilizing force, but it hasn't happened yet.
You didn't say anything about whether any voting was going to happen.
No, it doesn't look as if these bills are going to get a vote in the House, at least not anytime soon. During the madness early on Thursday, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan — who, between this and Trump, is probably not feeling too great about his decision to take this job — adjourned the chamber until after the holiday in an effort to shut down the sit-in and see if everyone will just forget this issue entirely a few weeks from now. As the session ended, Democrats yelled, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
So what's next?
Democrats are going to keep talking. Representative G.K. Butterfield, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told USA Today, “Write this date down — June 22. It’s the beginning of a movement. This is just the beginning."
Republicans are also going to keep accusing Democrats of wasting time on publicity stunts and "fundraising schemes." (Note: Republicans have fundraised off of the investigation into the Benghazi attacks, and both parties fundraised off of the government shutdown. Both parties will find a way to fundraise off of 99 percent of all things that happen.)
But what does this mean?
As Jamelle Bouie points out, it's kind of remarkable that Democrats seem to be trying to turn gun control into a major election issue, given recent history: "That Democrats are willing to gum up the House in an effort to pass new gun control legislation is indicative of the change in the congressional Democratic Party over the past seven years. It’s a geographically smaller party, with many more liberals and a proportionately greater number of representatives from dense urban areas."
Opinions on the Second Amendment have grown so polarized that it's hard for conservative Democrats to convince voters that they care about gun rights. As the Trace reported in May, "over the three most recent federal election cycles, the NRA’s spending on behalf of Democrats has dwindled to virtually nothing — even as overall election-related spending by the gun group soared to more than $32 million in 2014." The benefits of staying mum on guns have grown slim — which is why we're going to keep hearing about this issue all year long.