The sit-in on the House floor and the filibuster in the Senate has been grabbing a lot of media attention over the week. Images of former civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) linking arms with fellow law-makers and singing “We Shall Overcome” have been circulating the press and social media outlets since Wednesday.
There has been a lot of support given to these congress people, with much being made of their willingness to stand up to the gun lobby, to strike back against Republicans (many of whom have received substantial donations from the NRA and other gun lobbies).
On June 16th, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) ended a 15 hour filibuster to demand that people on various terrorist watch lists be flagged when attempting to purchase guns. This was seen as a decisive act following the horrific shooting in Orlando that is being reported as one of the worst mass-shootings (not perpetrated by the US government) in our history. The shooter, Omar Mateen, used a legally purchased semi-automatic weapon on June 12, 2016 to kill 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando. He was able to purchase weapons legally despite having been investigated twice by the FBI under suspicions of affiliation with terrorism.
In light of that, it seems totally reasonable for Sen. Murphy and the other bold Democrats to sit down and demand action. If someone’s been under investigation by the government, isn’t it entirely reasonable to assume they have no rights to buy weapons?
Except there is more to this than meets the eye.
In 2015, President Obama spoke out for prohibiting people on the terrorism watch lists and the “do-not-fly” list from purchasing firearms. Many people, such as Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. John Lewis himself, were on these lists for participating in lawful, First Amendment sanctioned protests. I myself was on one of these lists for a while, probably due to being politically engaged with various organizations working to dismantle the private prison industry and speaking out for the rights of indigenous people all over the Americas. In 2014, Rep. Lewis questioned the use of these lists in an official letter to the State Department.
There are three proposed Senate amendments to H.R. 2578 (a spending bill) that are relevant to the sit in. Sen. Cornyn (R-TX), Sen. Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Collins (R-ME) all proposed that anyone on a government watch list for suspected terrorist activities be prohibited from buying guns. These proposed amendments differed only in the due process involved in people on a watch list being allowed these purchases and the length of time that needed to pass once someone was removed from the list. On June 22nd, the ACLU released an open letter condemning these proposals, specifically the Collins amendment, and explaining their stance that these watch lists are usually incredibly flawed. A review of the terrorism watch list in 2014 found that over 40% of the people on the list were not affiliated with any terror organization.
So why were the Democrats staging a dramatic sit in?
It’s not clear. If Feinstein, a popular Democrat, and Cornyn and Collins, two prominent Republicans, agree that people currently or formerly on the terrorist watch list (people like Omar Mateen) should not be allowed to buy guns, it seems that there would be enough of a cross-aisle consensus to allow for a gun-reform amendment to pass. However, the Senate did not agree on this after Sen. Murphy’s filibuster.
After 25 hours an awful lot of media attention, Rep. Nancy Pelosi delivered a passionate speech about what the Democrats had accomplished during their sit-in, raising publicity and awareness on “these issues”. They made it clear that they wanted to vote on a gun control measure that would restrict the rights of people who have been investigated by the FBI for terrorism. They were basically protesting that the Senate did not agree on an amendment after Sen. Murphy’s filibuster.
What is notable is that the Democrats, who frame themselves as the guardians of the poor and oppressed, the people who stand up for those marginalized by the unjust systems held up by the Republicans, have just gotten a lot of media attention for demanding something that was originally proposed by Republicans. The do-not-fly list, as with many provisions of the Patriot Act, is systemically discriminatory against people racially profiled as being terrorists and is a specific focus of the ACLU. And there was not really anything in the house to protest- this bill had been sent to the Senate earlier this month and the Senate were passing the bill back and forth, making their own amendments and having their own arguments about what gun control meant to them.
What they do have is a lot of very bad publicity after a deeply divided primary race. Many of the prominent Democrats involved in this sit-in have personally damaged reputations, and what could be more invigorating than an old fashioned show of direct action. Interestingly, in the days since this sit-in there has been little to no media follow up on this action. Pelosi herself said that the Democrats pushing for these actions would take it “day-by-day”, not planning any follow up to this or to ensure any way to continue the momentum.
It’s too bad that this particular direct action is centered on supporting a piece of legislation that directly limits the personal rights and freedoms of many Americans who have never been formally accused of a crime. Americans like Rep. Lewis himself.
Wesley Roach, Skan Photography
Kitty Heite is an educator and activist living near the old Lenape village of Chinsessing in modern Philadelphia, PA. She is of Native, Irish, and probably German decent, and generally identifies as "American".