Danielle McLaughlin: 'Fireworks over gun control'
Opinion: Kiwi in New York Danielle McLaughlin reports that gun control will be a central issue in the November election following a scene reminiscent of the civil rights era.
There were fireworks in Washington DC this week. A week early for the 4th of July. On Wednesday, Americans witnessed a scene more akin to South Korean parliamentary pyrotechnics than the often staid, sometimes boring, always buttoned-up governance of the US House. Democratic representatives rose up and staged a sit-in, disgusted at their Republican counterparts' unwillingness to work with them on gun reform in the wake of the Orlando mass shooting.
American politics has its share of pageantry and drama. But any spectacle is normally reserved for presidential debates or inaugurations. Until this week.
At 11:24am, Democrats - led by civil rights era hero John Lewis of Georgia - stood up. Lewis is the last survivor of the civil rights leaders who stood and spoke alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the night he delivered his "I have a dream" speech. The Democrats recited the pledge of allegiance. Then they vowed to occupy the floor of the House until there was action on gun control. They held up signs with the names and photos of the Orlando and Sandy Hook victims. They shouted "no bill, no break" and "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." They sang We Shall Overcome, an anthem of the civil rights movement. Outside the U.S. Capitol, a crowd of hundreds gathered, shouting at Republicans, "do your job." Men, women, and children assembled as night fell. Some drove for an hour to be there. Some had seen gun violence first-hand.
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What do the Democrats want? They want people who are prohibited from boarding a plane in the US because of suspected ties to terrorism to be prohibited from purchasing a firearm. They want background checks for all gun purchases. At a minimum, they want to be able to vote on some form of gun control legislation, so that they can demonstrate to their constituents that they are listening, and that they want action too.
"Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary, sometimes you have to make a way out of no way," said Lewis. "Now is the time to get in the way. The time to act is now. We will be silent no more."
Paul Ryan, the most powerful Republican in the federal government, called the sit-in a publicity stunt. He criticised Democrats for not using the normal processes of the House. He reminded Democrats that a similar bill had failed in the Senate on Monday. Republicans' resistance to "no fly, no buy" is their concern that it would take away law-abiding citizens' constitutional right to bear arms, and their rights to due process of law.
So what happens next? After ending their protest 27 hours since they started, Democrats vowed to return to Congress after the 4th of July recess to demand action. With this, and likely other acts of conscience and political theatre still to come, the gun debate will take centre stage in November's presidential race. The fireworks have just begun.
* Expat Kiwi Danielle McLaughlin, a Manhattan lawyer and American TV political commentator, is the Sunday Star-Times' correspondent in the US.
- Sunday Star Times