Detroit Free Press: When the House sat down … and stood up for Americans


Call it a political stunt, if you like.

But to dismiss the ongoing sit-in begun by Democrats on Wednesday morning is to dismiss the genuine anguish and frustration among those who advocate sensible gun regulation. It is to dismiss the harm done to America, and Americans, by the gun lobby and the proliferation of firearms it has encouraged. And it is to dismiss the sense of despair growing, in many quarters, at the U.S. government’s unwillingness or inability to take even common-sense steps, measures supported by most Americans, to keep guns out of dangerous hands.

This, in the wake of the Orlando shooting, the worst mass shooting in American history, claiming 49 lives. This, after the San Bernardino shooting, claiming 14 lives. This, after nine African-Americans were shot in a Charleston church. This, four years after the Sandy Hook massacre, claiming the lives of 20 first-grade children. This, after an epidemic of gun violence that’s swept American cities, like Detroit, where 298 people were murdered in 2014.

When is it enough? That’s the question House Democrats are asking.

Led by civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia — a Freedom Rider who marched at Selma and still bears the scars he took from physical abuse — Democrats took the floor Wednesday, with the intention of forcing House Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, to bring a set of gun regulations to the floor for a vote. Causing “good trouble,” as the Congressman says.

As the day waned, more Democrats joined, including allies from the U.S. Senate, like Michigan senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters. Around 10 p.m., they broke out in song: “We Shall Overcome,” an anthem of the civil rights movement.

Just after midnight, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, who represents Michigan’s 12th Congressional District, stepped up to the podium, and in a sometimes-breaking voice, articulated the conflict at the heart of the nation’s gun debate with poignant clarity.

Mobile viewers, click here to watch the speech

Her husband, former U.S. Rep John Dingell, also a Democrat, is a responsible gun owner and former NRA board member. But Debbie Dingell has had a different kind of experience with guns, one she rarely speaks of: “I lived in a house with a man that should not have had a gun. I know what it’s like to see a gun pointed at you and wonder if you are going to live. And I know what it’s like to hide in a closet and pray to god, ‘Do not let anything happen to me.’ And we don’t talk about it, we don’t want to say that it happens in all kinds of households, and we still live in a society where we will let a convicted villain who was stalking somebody of domestic abuse, still own a gun.”

Why, Dingell asked, don’t gun control measures even merit debate?

Dingell acknowledged the tension between gun regulation and protection of the American right to gun ownership, and to due process.

But these tensions should start a conversation, she said. Not stop it.

“How,” she asked absent House Republicans,”can we protect somebody’s civil liberties if you won’t come to the table and have the discussion?”

The gun bills in question aren’t revolutionary: Preventing individuals on the government’s no-fly list — in theory, suspected terrorists — from buying weapons, and expanding background checks, including closing the so-called gun-show loophole. The American Civil Liberties Union and others have raised objections to the no-fly list, saying that the government doesn’t offer individuals enough information about their placement on it, or sufficient means to petition for removal. Others have voiced fears that the no-fly list targets Muslims. These objections are valid. But they’re arguments in favor of fixing the no-fly list, not for scrapping gun regulation.

And there’s more we could do: Allow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence, something for which the U.S. Congress has previously blocked funding. Allow the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sufficient funding to do its job — ensuring that the American gun trade complies with American law, and keeping firearms out of criminals’ hands.

In starkest terms, the House Democrats failed. The protest ended this afternoon. No vote was taken. And had one been called, Democrats surely would not have prevailed.

But perhaps the clearest takeaway is this: The Democratic minority refused to be silent, exercising another constitutional right — the right to peaceably assemble, to petition the government for redress of wrongs — and they did it over gun control.

Something, it seems, has changed.