Washington – Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis was the face of the unprecedented uprising by House Democrats seeking votes on gun control measures, but it was Rep. John Larson who was the behind-the-scenes planner of the insurrection and who kept it on course for more than 16 hours.
Larson said he and longtime friend Lewis shared their frustrations at the inaction of the House on gun control legislation during a Ways and Means Committee hearing the week after shooter Omar Mateen killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub.
“We were saying, ‘This is just too much, we have to do something,’” Larson said.
Lewis told him a lot of frustrated Democrats had reached out to the Georgia congressman, who was beaten severely in the historic march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
So Larson said he’d do some spadework on what could be done to force votes on legislation that would bar those on a federal terrorism watch list from purchasing weapons and on separate legislation, introduced in the House and Senate in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, that would expand FBI background checks of gun buyers.
He went to the House parliamentarian and the Congressional Research Service for answers and determined that options allowed under House rules would not work. So he decided to go rogue.
“I asked a couple of questions about what would happen if we seized the floor,” Larson said. “They pointed out it would be a violation of the rules. But where are the rules when a majority won’t let the minority vote?”
Larson then measured the well of the floor of the House of Representatives to determine how many lawmakers it would take to block it. He decided he needed at least 15 and began contacting fellow Democrats discretely.
On C-SPAN, Lewis said, “Most of the members didn’t even know what was going ahead for us…we never said anything or shared anything.”
Among the first contacted was Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who was enthusiastic and helped plan the strategy. Larson also enlisted Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District.
They agreed to help, “although they were looking at me a little skeptically,” he said.
Larson said his first thought was to have lawmakers stand to block the well, but Lewis suggested it should be a sit-in to echo the civil disobedience tactics of the 1960s.
He said the uprising had been in large part inspired by U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, who revolted at plans to hold another moment of silence in the House of Representatives after the Orlando shooting.
“This started when Himes said we can’t stand silent anymore,” Larson said.
Larson and a group of about 20 Democrats, including all members of the Connecticut House delegation, made their move Wednesday at 11:25 a.m.
Larson was confident that when other Democrats found out about the rebellion, they would join in.
He was right. What began as a clandestine plot with a handful of members grew to include almost the entire 188-person Democratic Caucus.
For the next 16 hours, they captured the nation’s attention and drew a steadily growing crowd of protesters outside the Capitol with their chants of “No Bill, No Break” because they did not want GOP leaders to adjourn the House until a vote was held on the gun measures.
One after another, lawmakers took turns deploring what they said is an epidemic of gun violence, listing mass shootings in Newtown; Charleston, S.C.; San Bernardino, Calif.; and Orlando. Larson said he did not give anyone a time limit.
The protesters held signs with the names and faces of shooting victims and told personal stories, sang “We Shall Overcome,” substituting the words in the second verse with “We shall hold a vote,” and shouted down Republicans with cries of “shame, shame, shame” and “cowards” when they tried to bring the House back into order.
Social media plays key role
C-SPAN could not televise the sit-in because its video feed from the House had been cut off – the House was in recess. The microphones in the chamber also had been shut off, causing lawmakers to shout out to the growing crowds in the visitors’ gallery.
Larson said the decision of GOP leaders to shut off the House feed and the mics turned out to be a lucky break. One act of civil disobedience led to another – lawmakers broke the House rule that prohibits the use of cell phones, cameras and videos in the chamber and began using social media to publicize the action. C-SPAN, deluged by callers who wanted to know what was going on, began streaming Periscope and Facebook video shot by several Democratic lawmakers.
“What you saw on the House floor was a mix of ‘60s activism with 21st century millennial technology,” he said.
For the next 16 hours, Larson stood by the well, managing the speeches. He said he took only one break, at 1 a.m.
The rebellion ended when House Speaker Paul Ryan, who called the uprising “a publicity stunt,” called for votes on bills that fund the response to the Zika virus and military construction at 2:30 a.m. and adjourned the House after that. A small number of Democrats, however, did not want to give up and continued their protest for another 10 hours.
Larson said a “skeleton crew” will continue to talk on the House floor throughout the July 4th break.
An ‘organic’ insurrection
Larson’s efforts won the praise of many of his colleagues.
DeLauro, in her last speech on the floor said, “Thank you, John. Thank you for many reasons — for who you are, for what you have done this evening, and for really helping to focus our time and our attention on this issue.”
Esty said, “It’s been a historic 26 hours, and it wouldn’t have happened without John’s leadership. He brought our party together and gave the American people a voice on the House floor.”
Larson wanted the insurrection to be “organic” and independent of the House leadership.
House minority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the third-highest ranking House Democrat, said he ran into Larson and his allies in the Capitol the day before they seized the House chamber and asked them what they were up to. Clyburn said Larson told him, “This isn’t for you.”
An aide to another House Democratic leader said “(House Minority Leader Nancy) Pelosi didn’t know this was going to happen; this was led by Larson and Lewis.”
“Members were getting really frustrated that there was no plan. So Larson and Lewis did this,” she said.
Larson said he kept the revolt a secret because he was trying to protect the Democratic leadership. “Because I knew it was against the rules of the House, I could not meet with the leadership,” he said.
After finding out about the sit-in, however, Pelosi gave it her blessing.
No votes scheduled
The uprising, however, failed to achieve its objective – votes on gun legislation.
In the Senate last week Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., staged a successful filibuster that caught national attention and eventually led GOP Senate leaders to agree to a series of floor votes on “terror gap” and background check legislation.. Those measures failed, but it resulted in a compromise proposal by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that cleared a procedural vote on Thursday.
But Ryan would not budge on the issue.
At a news conference Thursday he described the sit-in as a dangerous precedent. “No matter how bad things get in this country, we have a basic structure that ensures a functioning democracy,” he said. “We can disagree on policy, but we do so within the bounds of order and respect for the system. Otherwise, it all falls apart.”
Larson called the speaker “a decent guy,” who could have forced a clearing of the House floor, but didn’t. He said Ryan is concerned a vote could result in a victory for gun control advocates and hurt GOP members and his standing with the National Rifle Association.
“They don’t want to put their members in harm’s way,” Larson said of Republican leaders.
The strategy now is for Democrats to go back to their districts, stir up public sentiment for gun safety, then return to Washington, D.C., on July 5th with new strategies. He said he could not seize the well again because GOP leaders “are prepared for this”
“We’ve lost the element of surprise,” Larson said.
But there are other options, which he said he could not divulge, but House Democrats are committed to their new activism.
“There have been more than 1,000 mass shootings since Sandy Hook,” he said. “There is so much pent-up, palpable anger.”