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Democrats pissed off more than just Republicans with their House sit-in

The sit-in focused on a proposal to ban people on terrorism watchlists from purchasing firearms, a move that is opposed by civil liberties groups.
Photo via C-SPAN/Handout

At first glance, the 25-hour sit-in by House Democrats that ended early Thursday afternoon was a smart bit of political theater. Though the showdown ultimately failed to persuade Republicans to vote on gun control, it attracted a significant amount of attention online and drew praise from members of the public who felt as though their elected officials were finally doing something about gun violence.


But upon closer inspection, Democrats may have rallied around the wrong piece of legislation. The sit-in focused on a proposal to ban people on terrorism watchlists from purchasing firearms. Few people are in favor of letting terror suspects buy guns — especially after the gunman in the Orlando mass shooting was able to purchase his weapons legally despite having been investigated by the FBI over terror concerns — but civil liberties groups have warned that such proposals are dangerous.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are placed on watchlists for reasons that are not public or subject to due process, which groups like the the ACLU say is too broad and vague of a system to be used to infringe on someone's constitutional right to purchase a firearm.

Related: After more than 25 hours, Democrats end House sit-in with no vote on gun control

Under a similar proposal currently being debated in the Senate, "the applicant for a gun permit would not be able to see the government evidence used against him or her," said Chris Anders, the deputy director of the ACLU's Washington, DC legislative office. "That means a right would be denied based on secret evidence, which violates a number of fundamental due process protections."

House Speaker Paul Ryan used a similar argument in explaining why Republicans wouldn't allow a vote on Wednesday, telling CNN that lawmakers were "not going to take away a citizen's constitutional rights without due process." He also called the sit-in a "publicity stunt."


Retweet if you agree ? The sit-in by House Democrats is nothing more than a publicity stunt. — Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan)June 22, 2016

The Democratic Party's sit in is political theater at it's worst when they are fighting for a gun bill that is islamophobic at best.

— Maria Jose Hays (@HaysMariaJose)June 23, 2016

The ACLU estimates that about 35 percent of the names on US government watchlists have no factual basis for being there. The group also says the government doesn't have a way of clearing a person's name once someone has been blacklisted.

"It's ridiculous, the notion that somehow the watchlists are a reliable measuring stick for who should be deprived of an ability to purchase weapons," said Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, told the Guardian.

The Democrats behind the sit-in argued that something needed to be done to prevent guns from getting into the hands of terrorists.

"We have turned deaf ears to the blood of the innocent and the concern of our nation," said Representative John Lewis, who led the showdown on the House floor. "We are blind to a crisis. Mr. Speaker, where is the heart of this body? Where is our soul?"

Related: Glock pistols are the overlooked weapon in American mass shootings

"Give us a vote!" Lewis shouted, invoking language he used during the Civil Rights era concerning the passage of the Voting Rights Act. "Let us have a vote."

I'm proud of this sit-in. We need common sense gun reform. And to be clear, NO ONE IS TAKING AWAY GUNS! Just looking for COMMON SENSE reform

— Chris Evans (@ChrisEvans)June 22, 2016

Hero — Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren)June 22, 2016

Republicans, meanwhile, slammed the Democrats for employing the same tactics they've been known to use themselves. In 2008, House Republicans staged a similar sit-in to force a vote over energy policy and offshore oil drilling. Back then, the Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi, responded by doing the exact same thing the Republicans did on Wednesday: Cutting the C-SPAN cameras before leaving the chamber.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @oliviaLbecker