WASHINGTON (AFP) — Democratic lawmakers pushing for tougher US gun control laws after the Orlando nightclub massacre ended a stunning 24-hour sit-in at Congress on Thursday.
But they vowed to return with renewed vigor when the legislature comes back from a two-week recess on July 5, and said they had mustered much popular support for their cause in a country with an epidemic of gun violence.
“We are going to leave here. We are going out down the steps to greet the people outside. American people are with us and people around the world are with us,” sit-in leader John Lewis, a longtime congressman and veteran of the civil rights movement who marched with Martin Luther King, told reporters.
“We must never give up or give in. We must keep the faith and we must come back here on July 5 more determined than ever before,” Lewis said, flanked by lawmakers including House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
The scenes from the floor of the House of Representatives, where the protest began on Wednesday, were unprecedented in recent history.
Dozens of Democrats disrupted the chamber’s proceedings after Republican House speaker Paul Ryan refused to allow votes on two bills demanded by Democrats.
One would expand background checks and the other would prevent people on government watch lists and no-fly lists from buying guns.
Lewis and dozens of colleagues sat down on the carpeted floor in the well of the chamber.
Fifteen hours after the sit-in began, Ryan adjourned the House for two weeks in response to the protest and Republicans left the building for their Fourth of July recess.
Before that, he called for votes on unrelated issues as he sought a return to order as Democrats shouted “No bill, no break!,” referring to the Congress’s two-week vacation.
Dozens of Democrats spent the night in the chamber, and after a strategy meeting at midday Thursday, they decided to end the protest — at least for now.
During the sit-in, they made impassioned pleas for lawmakers to do something about gun violence in America.
“The time for silence and patience is long gone,” Lewis said.
“Do we have raw courage to make at least a down payment on ending gun violence in America?” he added.
Democratic House whip Steny Hoyer accused Republicans of having “left in the dead of night with business unfinished.”
“The fight will continue when the House comes back in session,” he added.
‘How many have to die?’
The congressional disobedience reflects the escalating political confrontation during an extraordinary presidential campaign, with Democrats urging tougher gun control measures — even if such legislation has virtually no chance of passing.
US lawmakers, mainly Democrats, have introduced several bills in recent years aimed at reducing gun violence, including legislation to expand background checks, but none have passed Congress.
“Who has to be shot, and how many have to die before we do anything?” asked congresswoman Robin Kelly.
The sit-in, which quickly grew to about 100 members, drew attention from the White House.
“Thank you John Lewis for leading on gun violence where we need it most,” President Barack Obama posted on Twitter.
Democratic White House hopeful Hillary Clinton also chimed in after C-SPAN, which broadcasts congressional sessions, was forced to turn off its cameras after Republicans forced a recess.
“House Republicans may have cut the cameras, but they can’t cut off our voices,” Clinton said in a tweet.
“We have to act on gun violence.”
Democrats enacted a creative workaround, broadcasting live video from Periscope and Facebook that was carried by C-SPAN.
It was the first time the public broadcaster aired live social media footage from the House floor — where taking pictures and video is prohibited.
The footage revealed extraordinary scenes.
Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, a former US Army helicopter pilot who was wounded and lost both legs in Iraq, sat with her colleagues on the carpet, with her prosthetics removed and her wheelchair empty beside her.
Pelosi joined the insurgents on Wednesday, then led several lawmakers and gun violence survivors and relatives outside onto the Capitol steps, where protesters sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
The Senate rejected four gun control amendments earlier this week, although a handful of lawmakers are pushing a bipartisan compromise bill aimed at preventing terror suspects and people on no-fly lists and FBI watchlists from buying firearms.