One Year After The Sit-In, You Still Deserve That Seat In The Room

Americans are right to question why their representatives are silencing their voices in our national gun safety debate.
06/22/2017 08:07 am ET Updated Jun 22, 2017
Handout . / Reuters

It started with a text from one of my staffers. With the cameras that normally show the business of the House of Representatives turned off, why don’t we download Periscope and stream it that way? House Democrats were in the middle of something historic. In the wake of the horrific shooting at an Orlando nightclub, we were following civil rights hero John Lewis and staging a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The message was simple: let us vote on two bills to bar suspected terrorists from buying guns and expand background checks to cover all firearm purchases. These bipartisan proposals are supported by at least 85 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, Democrats, and gun owners, but have never received a vote in the House. We were determined to change that. So I downloaded the app right there and began to livestream the sit-in from my phone. Throughout the night, millions of people from around the country and the world would use that broadcast to join us. That was one year ago.

The sit-in became a watershed moment not just for the national conversation around curbing gun violence, but also for transparency in Congress. Citizens across the country were brought into the room as their elected representatives shared their anger and heartbreak over Orlando and other incidents of gun violence. It was real; it was visceral; it was important; and it was made possible by this new technology. But in the year since the sit-in, Congress has gone backward. Both in how it tackles gun safety and in how it makes itself transparent and accountable to the people it represents, Congress is moving in the wrong direction.

Last week, prior to the tragic shooting that nearly took the lives of my colleagues in Alexandria, Virginia, a House committee was scheduled to consider a bill that would remove silencers from the protections of the National Firearms Act. These safeguards have been successful at preventing criminals from obtaining silencers, and eliminating them would put shooting victims and law enforcement officers at a greater disadvantage.

There are two proposals in Congress ― one with nearly 200 co-sponsors ― that would force all states to recognize concealed carry permits from every other state, even those that have weaker or no standards. Under one of those proposals, residents of states that don’t require any permit would be able to carry a concealed weapon anywhere in the country.

I believe we can and should respect cultural differences around firearms. I don’t want to export California’s gun laws to the rest of the country, but I also don’t want to undermine states like California that choose to have strong gun safety laws to protect their communities. A year ago, we fought to close loopholes that allow criminals and domestic abusers to obtain firearms; now we are fighting to stop new loopholes that would make it easier for these same dangerous individuals to carry a concealed weapon in every community in America.

It’s not a coincidence that all of this is happening as Congress is becoming less accountable to its constituents. The House passed a healthcare reform bill with no hearings and no bipartisan amendments. Now the Senate has written one in a back room with no intention of letting doctors, hospitals, or experts weigh in. And earlier this year, my Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives passed rules changes to impose fines on members of Congress who record video or livestream from the floor of the House.

After the shooting last week, there have been increased conversations about the rhetoric we use and how it divides us. But bipartisanship is about more than just ending personal insults. It is about acknowledging legitimate policy concerns, and holding an open process that enables a rigorous public debate. Nine in ten Americans want to see stronger background checks on firearm purchases. Given an open debate in a transparent Congress, we win that battle. But we’re not getting an open debate on this issue or many others ― and that matters.

Whether you support the health care repeal proposals or gun safety bills, we can all agree that our government is stronger when more citizens are involved. My 21st century approach may not work for every member of Congress, but that doesn’t mean it should be banned entirely. The more transparent we are, the more Americans can connect with their often too-insular government. And we as elected officials shouldn’t fear that.

A year ago, I turned on my livestream because I believed that you deserved a seat in the room. And with all that has changed, that is still the case. Whether we’re talking about curbing gun violence or fixing healthcare, you still deserve that seat in the room. It’s your House, after all.

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