Twice after the Orlando shooting, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina tried to bring up pending gun legislation and was ruled out of order or was ignored by House Speaker Paul Ryan.
By Wednesday, Clyburn and his Democratic colleagues said they’d had enough. Led by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., they launched a sit-in. Halting regular proceedings, several Democrats sat down on the floor around 11:30 a.m., vowing to hold it until Ryan allows a vote on gun safety legislation.
“We can no longer wait. We can no longer be patient. So today we come to the well of the House to dramatize the need for action. Not next month. Not next year. But now. Today,” Lewis said.
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Clyburn led a prayer, remembering the victims of gun violence who lost their lives “because of our refusal to speak up, stand up, and support just laws that could ensure the safety and security for our fellow humans.”
The protesting lawmakers stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Some lawmakers read the names of shooting victims in their districts.
As the day wore on, they were increasingly loudly cheered and applauded by their colleagues. Even passing visitors to the U.S. Capitol applauded the protesters sitting on the House floor. Supporters blew up Twitter with #HoldTheFloor and #NoBillNoBreak hashtags.
“We will #holdthefloor until we get votes on #NoFlyNoBuy, Universal Background Checks, and Gun Violence Research. #NoBillNoBreak,” Clyburn tweeted.
“89 deaths every day from #gunviolence in America. I will continue to #holdthefloor with @repjohnlewis until we get the vote” another tweet said.
During the sit-in, Clyburn moved around the chamber, speaking with staffers and other lawmakers. At one point he walked out to the Capitol steps for a brief news conference.
Clyburn called on his colleagues in Congress to realize that something can be done immediately. The mass shooting in his home state of South Carolina just over a year ago, which left nine dead, including his friend Rev. Clementa Pinckney, would not have happened if a simple loophole could be closed, he said.
“We want reasonable, effective, background checks,” he said on the steps of the Capitol. “We have a big loophole in this law, that because of this incident, is now called the Charleston loophole.”
Closing that loophole has been one of Clyburn’s main goals, saying it allowed Dylann Roof to buy a .45-caliber Glock pistol – though a previous drug arrest should have barred him from making the purchase. The FBI afterward said that Roof, who is now 22 years old, should not have been able to buy the weapon. Roof stands accused in the gun rampage that left nine black parishioners dead at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
“That young man was not eligible to own a gun. In fact, that background check had been undetected,” Clyburn said.
Roof’s sale reportedly went through because the National Criminal Background Check System has three days to vet a gun buyer, and the person doing the background check was not able to find his police record by that deadline.
As frustration grew online that C-SPAN was not carrying the sit-in live, since the Congress-controlled cameras went dark after Republicans declared the House in recess, some lawmakers became more innovative. Tweeting #TurnOnTheCameras, Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., turned to the Periscope app to livestream the protest, which was watched by thousands of people.
“So proud of House Democrats!” tweeted South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison.
Republicans had different opinions.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., took to Twitter to call the sit-in a “media stunt to distract American people.”
“Don’t be fooled,” he tweeted. “Hillary Clinton met with them in House just before.”