The horrific mass shooting in Orlando appears to have been the straw that broke the donkey's back: Congressional Democrats hit the floor in both the House and the Senate ready for some actual change this week. After years of inaction on gun control, with bill after bill shunted into committee, watered down, or failing to pass, the Democrats are apparently ready to take the gloves off in these few remaining months of the Obama presidency.
It started on Monday in the House, with a resounding retort to Speaker Paul Ryan's moment of silence. It's become obligatory for government bodies to hold a brief moment of silence as an observation of terrible loss of life, but some House Democrats announced that they're tired of being silent, embracing the motto of ACT UP!, which once told America that "silence=death" when it came to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The same is true for gun control, where silence is the problem. We don't need more inaction overseen by hypocrites who send out "thoughts and prayers" with one hand while blocking functional gun policy with the other. Speaker Ryan has repeatedly indicated that he worships an individual rights interpretation of the Second Amendment, claiming that people like President Obama are coming to take everyone's guns away.
House Democrats were perturbed by the thought of a man who trumpets "gun rights" and enables the civilian ownership of military-grade assault weapons leading a "moment of silence" for the victims of policies he sponsored, voted on, condoned, and supports. So they did something about it. Some Democrats simply walked out, refusing to play ball — a few seconds of stillness paired with no further movement on gun issues isn't enough, they argued. Others shouted Speaker Ryan down with calls of "where's the bill?!"
Representative Jim Himes (CT) wrote for the Washington Post, explaining why he chose to leave the floor rather than remain there in silence:
Then I thought about how Congress would respond to the latest atrocity. There would be, for the umpteenth time, a moment of silence. To 'honor' the victims. We did it five times just last year: Stop talking about sports and dinner and Donald Trump for about 10 seconds, put on our most serious faces, wonder if we’d turned off our phones. For 10 seconds.
Done. Over. On to the next thing.
Not me. Not anymore.
The actions of House Democrats started a conversation about why it's not sufficient to sit around with hands over hearts for a minute and then continue with daily business. So on Wednesday, Senate Democrats delivered the thunder with a filibuster-style action that brought proceedings to a grinding halt.
It was initiated by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who said he'd stay on the floor as long as feasibly possible to demand the passage of gun control legislation. Other Senate Democrats quickly rallied to his side, trading off at the mic to give him a break without forcing him to yield his right to the floor. Even House Democrats ambled over to check out the proceedings and lend their support (one even brought him some foot cushions), and proceedings on C-SPAN were absolutely riveting for once.
Senators Cory Booker (NJ), Richard Blumenthal (CT), Claire McCaskill (MO), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Ed Markey (MA), Bill Nelson (FL), Dick Durbin (IL), Jeff Merkley (OR), Patrick Leahy (VT), Tammy Baldwin (WI), and many others quickly joined in. They read testimonies from trauma surgeons who worked with victims, talked about their own personal connections with mass shootings, discussed domestic violence, and picked apart Republican positions on gun control.
If you had told me that a shooting in an LGBQT club predominantly occupied by people of color celebrating Latinx night was going to be the tipping point on gun control, I would have scoffed. This is the same country where states are systematically passing restrictions on LGBQT rights, perhaps most iconically in the form of the bathroom bill. It's the same country where discrimination against LGBQT people is still legal in many states, because there's no formal national policy against it. It's the same country where there are striking economic and social inequalities between LGBQT people and straight, cis people, where those inequalities are even more acute for people of color.
It's a country where transgender women are raped, murdered, and tossed like garbage into dumpsters. Where LGBQT youth account for 40 percent of teens seeking homeless services. This is a country that hates LGBQT people, systematically, pervasively, and horrifically, and it hates LGBQT people of color even more. Yet, apparently 49 deaths are too much to be ignored, are the thing that pushes Democrats into actually doing something instead of just talking about how it would be really nice if someone did something about gun control.
Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) are presenting competing measures on the assault weapons issue, with an eye to addressing at least one problem with access to guns in the United States. In a shocking illustration of how out of touch Republicans are not just with most of the nation, but even with NRA members and other gun owners, they're opposed to a rule that would bar sales of assault weapons to people on terrorist watchlists. Instead, they say, there should be a 72 hour holding period.
A 72 hour holding period.
Evidently, terrorists seeking assault weapons are going to simply give up after 72 hours. Perhaps they'll move on to another weapon of choice or decide to stay home and watch Netflix instead of launching a terrorist attack. Or not. Senator Leahy pointed out that a reporter in Vermont was able to obtain an AR-15 in a parking lot with no identification and no background check by simply handing over $500 in cash.
That's why this effort is so important. Democrats seized control of the floor in an attempt to force the Senate's hand, but they used the opportunity to share some pretty shocking and perturbing information. They found a way to amplify the voices of survivors, to get down to real statistics and research on gun violence and social attitudes, to pointedly talk about what it's like to go home to your constituents and be asked why you haven't done anything about gun control.
If the Democrats can keep up the pressure and the momentum — something they can only do with constituents rallying behind them to show their support — they could force Congress to get serious about gun control. They'd better do it fast, though, because between recesses, holidays, and other events, the clock is ticking on passing a bill for President Obama to sign. If they can't get their act together by January 20, 2017, it's either going to be a lot easier to pass comprehensive legislation with an energetic, driven, very pro-gun control president in the White House...or nearly impossible to accomplish much of anything with an overinflated orange gasbag sitting behind the Resolute Desk.