Don't Fret: The House Democrats' Sit-In on Gun Violence Is a Genius Move - and It's Already Working

House Democrats began a historic sit-in on the floor of Congress Wednesday, with the stated aim of forcing Republican Speaker Paul Ryan to bring two measures to curb gun violence up for a vote: one bill to expand background checks for gun buyers, and another to prevent anyone on the government’s terrorism watch list from purchasing guns. But the sit-in’s true goal is something entirely different: to showcase the Republican Party’s refusal to pass reasonable gun safety legislation, thereby damaging the GOP’s standing with voters and helping Democrats win back Congress—when thenthey’ll be able to actually pass new gun regulations.

Democrats know that Ryan won’t capitulate. He’ll simply never allow the minority to dictate what bills get voted on in the House. And even if he did permit a vote, the proposals would never win a majority. We just saw this happen in the Senate, where Republicans lined up against the same measures en masse. The same fate would await these bills in the House. And again, Democrats know all this.

But some pundits—even some ostensibly liberal ones—don’t seem to grasp what’s going on. Some complain that Democrats are wasting their time on such small-bore legislation, but again, it’s not about getting these bills passed. Some are worried that Democrats are violating the sanctity of the parliamentary process and are only fomenting further dysfunction, but that’s already proven false: Republicans successfully held several other unrelated votes in the midst of the sit-in on Wednesday night. These worriers forget that it is Republicans who have abused the system for decades in unprecedented fashion, leading to our current sorry state of affairs.

Others raise more legitimate questions about the civil liberties concerns posed by the terrorism watch list. But if Democrats retake Congress, they’d be able to address these issues. Republicans, by contrast, don’t care one whit about civil liberties unless they somehow implicate gun ownership, as they’ve demonstrated by their failure to actually pass any legislation that would improve the watch list in all the years they’ve been in power.

Right now, because Democrats want to keep their message as focused and as simple as possible, they’re concentrating solely on guns, and solely on gun reforms that command the support of vast majorities of voters. And they’re doing this because political theater is a powerful tool, particularly when you have the public on your side. Georgia Rep. John Lewis, the leader of this sit-in, knows this well. Lewis has led sit-ins before: at segregated lunch counters in Nashville as a young man in 1960. But Lewis’ ultimate aims—his life’s work—went far beyond desegregating restaurants. Yet the images and news reports of those early lunch counter struggles in the South reverberated in ways that went on to have a profound impact on American law and life.

Likewise, the fight for new gun safety laws is also in its earliest days, because for the first time ever, the Democrats are fully unified on the issue. And the sit-in is already having an impact. Not only has it generated intense coverage in the traditional media, it’s also lit up social media as well. Even Kim Kardashian tweeted her support for the Democrats to her 46 million followers. Snicker if you like, but the fact that someone like her has taken notice shows that the sit-in is reverberating.

And if Democrats can keep up their intensity, with any luck, this will reverberate all the way until November.


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