In one of the most extraordinary scenes on the US House floor, Democrats took over the chamber’s proceedings for most of the day, prompting Republican Speaker Paul Ryan to gavel the House into session late at night, nearly drowned out by chants of lawmakers protesting his effort to bring the sit-in to a close.
Ryan, who dismissed the protest as a “publicity stunt,” refused to allow votes on two bills demanded by Democrats: one expanding background checks to include sales at gun shows and on the Internet, and another that prevents people on the government’s no-fly list or FBI terror watchlists from buying a gun.
Ryan instead called for votes on unrelated issues as he sought a return to regular order. Democrats shouted “No bill, no break!” referring to efforts to prevent Congress from adjourning for the Fourth of July holiday.
After the unrelated votes, the presiding officer declared the House in recess and left the chamber, but dozens of Democrats remained.
“There is a stain on the soul of America, and we must heal it, and it begins tonight,” freshman Democrat Brendan Boyle said.
His colleague Steve Israel said the sit-in will last into Thursday. “through the night, guaranteed,” he told AFP.
Republicans “can shut it down but it would be at their own peril.”
The congressional disobedience, which earned praise from President Barack Obama, signaled what is likely to be a protracted election-year battle over firearms – perennially a hot-button US campaign issue.
The House drama began before noon.
“We have to occupy the floor of the House until there is action,” said House Democrat John Lewis – a civil rights icon who marched with Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s – just before he and dozens of colleagues sat down on the carpeted floor in the well of the chamber.
US lawmakers, mainly Democrats, introduced several bills in recent years aimed at reducing gun violence, including legislation to expand background checks – a provision that has broad public support. But none has passed Congress.
“Who has to be shot, and how many have to die before we do anything?” asked congresswoman Robin Kelly of Illinois.
The chamber was scheduled to wrap up business Thursday before going on break.
The sit-in, which quickly grew to about 100 members, drew the attention of the White House.
“Thank you John Lewis for leading on gun violence where we need it most,” Obama posted on Twitter.
“House Republicans may have cut the cameras, but they can’t cut off our voices,” Democratic White House hopeful Hillary Clinton added in her own tweet. “We have to act on gun violence.”