WASHINGTON -- Nearly 26 hours after Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) strolled across the House floor and sat down to protest the absence of gun reform from the legislative docket, he and his fellow Democrats called an end to the demonstration.
The 76-year-old civil rights icon was, appropriately, the last to speak at the lectern where numerous other colleagues had taken their turns to demand consideration of two bills that would bar those on a no-fly list from purchasing firearms and require background checks for gun purchases at gun shows and online. The Democrats had remained there through the night, even as Republican leadership had recessed the House, denying the protest live coverage on C-SPAN. The lawmakers who stayed used Periscope, a smartphone app that live-streams video, and Facebook Live videos, to get the word out instead.
Ultimately, Lewis didn’t get a vote. And even if he had, it wasn’t likely that the bill would have passed. But the sit-in did galvanize the party and the public, with throngs of people flocking to the Capitol grounds Wednesday night to cheer on the congressional disruption.
“It is a struggle and we are going to win the struggle,” Lewis said, as he wrapped up the sit-in.
In the hours leading up to that unsatisfying conclusion, lawmakers struggled with the gravity of what they were doing: from their decision to break House rules to their plans for what would come next.
One year ago this month, Rep. Jim Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) district was reeling after nine people were shot dead in a historic black church in Charleston. But it was his decades in the civil rights movement, fighting alongside Lewis, that came back to him.
“In a strange sort of way for us to be on this floor today talking about the right to vote tells us a little about about how much remains to be done,” he said in an interview with HuffPost. “Despite the fact that the speaker has used his power to keep this legislation off of the floor, has used his power to shut down debate on this critical issue, it’s an idea whose time has come.”
Sitting on the floor of the House for hours on end, Clyburn said, was “the most dynamic emotion I’ve felt since I’ve been here, and this is my 24th year.”
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), who didn’t leave the floor until almost 4 a.m. Thursday, was reminded of a similar debate last year. It was Dec. 2 and Democrats were trying to force debate on the "no fly, no buy" bill. Moments after the attempt failed, Aguilar walked off the floor. His phone buzzed with texts messages and calls from people back home in San Bernardino. Fourteen were dead, and 21 injured.
“They teach you a lot here on how to handle casework, but no one teaches you how to comfort someone who has gone through tragedy like this and that’s what I was thrust into,” Aguilar told HuffPost.
When House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) gaveled back into session late Wednesday evening, trying to bring the chamber back to order, Aguilar said he, too, couldn't help but turn to Lewis.
“It’s not the same if other members said the exact same words but John Lewis is a powerful force who has stood time and time again on the right side of history and right side of our communities,” Aguilar said. “How can you leave the floor if John Lewis is having a sit-in on the floor of Congress.”
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) never left the floor during the protest. He was one of the four members who initially planned the disturbance.
“It grew out of our really deep commitment to do something different and figure out a way to really draw attention to the urgency of this issue and pressure House Republicans to do something about the epidemic of gun violence,” he said. “We learned a lot about each other in these 24 hours.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) briefly took a nap in the cloakroom as the sit-in went on through the night. At one point when she was awake on the floor, a Republican member stepped on her. She brushed it off. It was the indifference that GOP leadership showed to the gun control bills -- capped off by the speaker forcing other votes and then closing the chamber for recess -- that bothered her more.
“The way he did that was symbolic -- unable to see and to hear the intensity of feeling that’s in the country as well as in the chamber; it was so cynical,” Schakowsky said. “Like nothing was happening, he’s just going to wield that gavel no matter what.”
For other Democrats, the night's proceedings had personal meaning. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) took a red-eye back to the Capitol from California after watching her colleagues hold the floor overnight. A survivor of multiple bullets during the 1978 Jonestown massacre, Speier showed members a bullet that was lodged in her body.
“It was a dream come true,” she told HuffPost after the sit-in wrapped up. “This is the proverbial tipping point. When my parish priest preaches about gun violence in his homily, and every one explodes and applauds at the end of it -- which never happens -- you know that the American people are fed up.”
Like Speier, Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) is a shooting victim. He became a quadriplegic when he was a junior cadet and two police officers were checking out a semi-automatic pistol and accidentally pulled the trigger thinking the gun wasn't loaded.
“If they have an accident with a gun, anyone can have an accident with a gun,” Langevin said. Taking the floor, he said, was “one of the most exciting and meaningful moments of my 16 years here in Congress.”
Not getting a vote was deflating for him.
“We weren’t demanding that the bills had to pass,” he said. “But the American people deserve to have a vote, and the victims of gun violence deserve to have a vote.”
Whether they will ever get that vote is uncertain. Because Democrats are in the minority right now, they have extremely limited power to bring legislation to the floor, absent a sudden change of heart from Ryan. They were extremely coy about what they might have in store when the House reconvenes on July 5.
Democrats have "a myriad of options" on how to force the issue, said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), who declined to reveal them because he didn't want Republicans to get wind. "I wouldn't rule out anything right now," he added, when asked if another sit-in is possible.
For now, the party seems poised to try to roll some of the energy of the sit-in into district-based action. "It's going back to the district," said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who helped orchestrate the sit-in, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters that “activism” will continue for all of next week.
“Let me be really clear about this: We cannot stop until we get a bill, until a law is passed,” she said. “This is not about politics, it’s not about elections, it’s not about campaigns.”
Earlier, Pelosi and the rest of the caucus had walked with Lewis outside the Capitol into a sea of supporters holding signs touting gun control. The Georgia Democrat was treated as a conquering hero even though he had come up short.
“Never give up!” he said.
“Never give up!” people shouted back.
“We’ve got to vote like we’ve never, ever voted before,” Lewis said.
He then led the crowd in singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Sam Stein contributed reporting.