Just before noon on June 22, I finished a meeting in my office and turned on the TV to see the breaking news that would soon reach millions of people across the country: a group of my House Democratic colleagues, led by civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis, were staging a sit-in on the House floor, demanding a vote on legislation to help prevent gun violence in America.
Ten days earlier, a man claiming allegiance to radical terrorists had carried out a horrific mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and wounding more than 50. When members of Congress returned to Washington the next day, the House held yet another moment of silence, after which we once again took no action to address gun violence. The House majority would not allow a vote to prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns, or to require universal background checks for all commercial gun sales.
It was just another week of business as usual in the House of Representatives, and it seemed that last week would be more of the same — until I heard that John Lewis was holding the floor. Within a few minutes, I was there with him and a few dozen colleagues, and the number continued to grow until there were more than 200 House and Senate Democrats in the House chamber, unified in our determination to force a vote on common-sense bills that the overwhelming majority of Americans support.
What happens in politics is so often scripted, poll-tested and rehearsed, then dressed up to seem sincere. But this was real. This was a spontaneous expression of the frustration that had built up and bubbled over in us after sitting through so many moments of silence for victims of mass shootings, after mourning with victims of gun violence in our own districts — victims of shootings that don’t make the national news, but devastate entire communities — and then doing nothing about it.
The two bills we’re proposing are not radical ideas, and despite what extremists like the National Rife Association might say, they come nowhere close to infringing on the Second Amendment rights of responsible, law-abiding American citizens. We’re asking for a vote on one bill, often referred to as “No Fly, No Buy,” that would allow the government to prohibit suspected terrorists from buying guns, and another that would close loopholes that allow violent criminals to get guns online or at gun shows without undergoing background checks.
More than eight out of 10 Americans support these bills. The vast majority of gun owners, and even NRA members, support them. And the majority of House members support them. Both were introduced by my Republican colleague from Long Island, Rep. Peter King, and I have no doubt they would pass in the House if only they were put to a vote.
When 80 to 90 percent of Americans support legislation, and that legislation can’t even come to a vote in the People’s House, there’s something fundamentally wrong with our representative government. And when we can’t even get a vote on two bills that we know will help prevent gun violence, that we know will save lives, that we know will pass — then it’s time to break with business as usual.
We didn’t get the votes that we demanded. Our colleagues in the majority came onto the floor at 2:30 a.m. and sent the House into recess until after July Fourth, and House Democrats left the floor the next day after sitting in for more than 24 hours.
Some people would consider that a failure. But I don’t.
We didn’t spend a day on the floor just to get a vote on these two bills. We were there to give a voice to the people we serve — people who are tired of losing family members and friends to senseless gun violence, tired of living in fear, tired of listening to an endless partisan debate that pits common sense against wealthy special interests.
I believe those voices are being heard more loudly than ever before. I believe we are at the start of a sustained, nationwide movement that will ultimately break through the stalemate on this issue and finally yield real action. And I urge every one of you to be a part of it.
Together, we cannot be silenced and we cannot be defeated. We must keep speaking up and keep fighting for what’s right until common sense prevails.
Kathleen Rice is the U.S. representative for New York’s 4th Congressional District.