By Susan Cornwell
Democrats in the US House of Representatives on Thursday ended a more than 25-hour-long sit-in held on the chamber’s floor to protest the lack of action on gun control measures, vowing to come back more energised on the issue in July.
Representative Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, told Reuters that lawmakers would now go back to their home districts to continue to try to build support for legislation.
After raucous scenes that nearly erupted into a fistfight, the majority Republicans adjourned the House in the early hours of Thursday morning and said there would be no more votes until after the July 4 holiday.
The Democrats stayed behind and more than two dozen of them still occupied the House floor on Thursday morning, 24 hours after they took it over to demand Republican leaders allow a vote on gun-related legislation to push for gun control legislation after the gay nightclub massacre in Orlando.
The protesting lawmakers rotated in and out of the chamber, sitting in the aisles and in front of the podium, often chanting and singing. After the House leadership closed down the chamber’s television cameras, individual members broadcast video of their protest on Facebook Live and Periscope.
Such dramatic tactics by legislators are rare in the US Capitol and the protest underscored how sensitive the gun control issue has become after the June 12 shooting in which a gunman pledging allegiance to Islamic State killed 49 people.
Democrats were seeking votes on legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases, as well as measures to curb the sale of weapons to people on government watch lists.
Democratic leaders bought pizza and Chinese food for the protesting members on Wednesday night and Senator Elizabeth Warren provided doughnuts, said Representative Mark Takano of California.
“I’ve eaten more carbohydrates in sort of one 12-hour period than I have in the last several months,” he said.
Republicans, angry about losing control of the chamber for most of Wednesday, denounced the sit-in. Chaotic scenes ensued when several Republican representatives charged the chamber floor and yelled at protesting Democrats, prompting a confrontation that nearly descended into fisticuffs.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan attacked the sit-in as nothing more than a publicity stunt that is helping Democrats raise 2016 election campaign funds.
“We’re reviewing everything right now as to what happened and how we can bring order to this chaos,” he said on Thursday. “This is the people’s house. This is Congress, the House of Representatives, and they’re descending into chaos.”
On Wednesday, Democrats held up signs honouring gun violence victims during the votes and sang “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement.
Ryan called for decorum but could scarcely be heard over Democrats chanting “No bill, no break!” to demand action on guns before the recess.
“The House is focused on eliminating terrorists, not constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” said Ryan’s spokeswoman, AshLee Strong.
Last week, Senate Democrats staged a filibuster to protest inaction on guns in the wake of the Orlando mass shooting, the worst in modern US history.
After the Senate talk-a-thon, the Senate’s Republican majority scheduled votes on four gun control measures – all of which failed on Monday. Work on a compromise is under way.
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who joined the protesting House members for a while, told CNN the chamber could have a vote on that bill as early as Thursday.
Congress has not passed major gun control legislation since 1994, with gun rights defenders saying such measures infringe the constitutional right to bear arms.
Pleading for action on gun control, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi invoked not only Orlando but other mass shootings, including an attack a year ago by a white man at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine people.
“Just because they have left doesn’t mean we are taking no for an answer,” she said after Republicans departed.
By Susan Cornwell