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'Spirit of History': House Democrats Hold Sit-In on Gun Control

House Democrats led by Civil Rights veteran Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, are in the midst of a sit-in on the House Floor to try to force a vote on guns
Rep. John Lewis, center, and other Democrats stage a sit-in to demand action on gun legislation.
Rep. John Lewis, center, and other Democrats stage a sit-in to demand action on gun legislation.@RepJohnYarmuth

Georgia congressman John Lewis deployed a strategy from his days as a civil rights activist and coupled it with social media to stage a dramatic sit-in Wednesday on the House floor with his fellow Democrats to force a vote on gun control — and disrupt political business as normal well into the night.

As midnight Thursday rolled in, the sit-in had lasted for over 12 hours.

"Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary, sometimes you have to make a way out of no way,” said Lewis, one of the last living icons of the civil rights movement. “There comes a time when you have to say something, when you have to make a little noise, when you have to move your feet. This is the time. Now is the time to get in the way. The time to act is now. We will be silent no more."

As the sit-in stretched into half-a-day long, lasting through votes by GOP that threatened to derail the movement, Lewis thanked supporters and fellow legislators, saying "I'm gratified. It is good to see sitting there on the floor. I felt like I was reliving my life all over again. During the sixties, the sit in started with 3 or 4 people and it spread like wildfire. This was spread."

Lewis and roughly 40 fellow House Democrats began the protest around midday Wednesday by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as a couple dozen visitors in the gallery looked on and vowing "to occupy the floor of the House until there is action."

Other Democrats began chanting: "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired!" and "No bill, no break!"

"We will be sitting-in until the House is allowed an opportunity to vote," Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said later in a statement. "This is an issue that ought to transcend party — it's about saving lives and keeping our communities safe."

Rep. Keith Ellison posted on Facebook that he learned about the sit-in when a staffer handed him a note that read: "Your Mom called and wants you on the floor!"

"Couldn't say no," the Minnesota Democrat wrote. "Don't worry, mom. I'm there."

Soon they were joined by Democratic reinforcements from the Senate side, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Mark Warner of Virginia and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Lewis later told NBC News that "sometimes you are moved by history."

Related: Senate Votes Down Four Gun Control Measures After Fiery Debate

It is highly unusual for members to disrupt the functioning of the House this way.

If members do not leave the floor and no compromise is reached, it is largely up to Speaker Paul Ryan to decide whether to use the authority of the House to seek to clear the floor and/or sanction members, or to keep the House in recess and wait out the issue.

The protest was not being televised because the House has not formally gaveled into session.

So Rep. Scott Peters, D-California, has been using the video streaming app, Periscope, to share footage of the sit-in. C-Span has been broadcasting Peters' video feed.

House members also took to social media to lodge their protests using the hashtags #NoBillNoBreak, #NOMORESILENCE and #goodtrouble.

Outside, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made sure the rest of the country knew about what was going on inside the chamber with a hastily-arranged press conference on the Capitol steps .

“Once again we are fighting an uphill fight to bring legislation to the floor,” Pelosi said. “We truly believe that if there was a vote, we would win the vote.”

The merging of old-school protest tactics and new-school social media strategy helped ensure that the House Democrats' revolution on gun policy reform was indeed televised.

"I did this in the '60s — I never expected to be doing it in my '60s," said Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., just before 9 p.m., as the sit-in was still going strong.

Related: Can They Do That? These Rules Govern Protests on House Floor

The move led by Lewis, who was jailed and repeatedly beaten back in the 1960s when he helped lead the battle for equal rights for African-Americans, took the Republican leadership by surprise.

And it came after Lewis wrote House Speaker Paul Ryan a letter demanding that he keep the House in session instead of going into recess so there could more debate on gun control legislation in the wake of the Orlando massacre.

“As the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history has underscored, our country cannot afford to stand by while this Congress continues to be paralyzed by politics,” Lewis wrote.

Related: Civil Rights Icon Rep. John Lewis No Stranger to Sit-Ins

The House sit-in came on the heels of a showdown over gun policy Monday in the Senate.

Four gun policy measures failed to pass the 60-vote threshold to move forward in the Senate. The votes came in the wake of the deadly shooting spree in a gay nightclub in Orlando — the nation's worst mass shooting in modern history — and a subsequent 15-hour filibuster by Senate Democrats who demanded action on gun control.

The four amendments — two filed by Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and two other, less restrictive measures filed by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and John Cornyn, R-Texas — addressed background checks of prospective gun buyers and the sale of guns and explosives to people on terrorist watch lists.

Murphy, who led last week's 15-hour filibuster by Senate Democrats who demanded action on gun control, applauded the House's moves.

So did former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama who in a Tweet thanked Lewis for "leading on gun violence where we need it most." Vice President Joe Biden called Lewis " the keeper of the nation's conscience at times of challenge and controversy."

As the day wore on, the gallery seats began to fill as curious onlookers watched the impassioned speeches. Care packages with snacks and letters from supporters began pouring in for the lawmakers who were determined to stay the night.

GOP leadership gaveled the House back into session sometime around 10:00 p.m., to vote on a veto override of the Fiduciary Rule, which is unrelated to the gun issue. The vote was previously scheduled for Wednesday.

As Speaker Ryan spoke, the gallery and Dems on the floor began loudly chanting "NO BILL, NO BREAK!"

Ryan called the vote to order and walked away from the podium. Democrats began pointing at him and yelling "SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!"

Democrats also sang "We Shall Overcome" and vowed "we shall pass a bill."

A group of 150-300 peaceful protesters holding candles and signs were also gathered outside the Capitol, organized by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

When Lewis was asked around midnight how long the sit-in would last, he responded, "We're going to sit in, sit down, stand up ... we're going to be here for a while tonight."

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