The Godawful Bill at the Center of the Gun Sit-In

"No fly, no buy" would be a civil rights nightmare, and ineffective at preventing mass shootings

Supporters of the Democrats' sit-in over gun-control legislation gathered at the Capitol Wednesday evening. Credit: Al Drago/The NY Times/Redux

In the end, the Republicans cut and ran. Or they realized there was no point in being shouted down. If you've come away from this week's events in Congress with something like certitude, you probably began the day that way. For everyone else, being ambivalent feels like the natural result of being witness.

In response to America's umpteenth mass shooting tragedy, House Democrats, led by Georgia Rep. John Lewis, initiated a sit-in Wednesday, demanding the Republican-controlled House vote on two gun-control bills. Ordinarily, pairing the words "sit-in" and "John Lewis" conjures images of pretty stark political clarity, but there are limits to how much the past can ennoble the present, especially one this compromised.

Just before noon Wednesday, when it became clear that Democratic representatives planned to stay seated on the floor for the foreseeable future, House Speaker Paul Ryan recessed the House and ordered the C-SPAN cameras turned off. Members of the sit-in responded by Periscoping their speeches, violating House rules against videotaping proceedings. They chanted, "No bill, no break!" They sang "We Shall Overcome." When Ryan returned that evening to call things back to order, he was drowned out. Eventually, after 2 a.m., he and the rest of the Republican House took their balls and went home.

Fainting at violations of congressional tradition is a stuffed-shirt's game. At peak efficiency, Congress is designed to impede change and make a virtue of the status quo. Besides, conservatives have practically branded government disruption, from refusing to vote on nominees for positions as radical as surgeon general, to vastly expanding the filibuster, to shutting the whole thing down to refuse to pay debts the government already contracted. So it's hard to feel even a scintilla of sympathy, especially given the endless frustration of watching the Democrats play by the rules against opponents determined to break and bend as many as possible. And yet.

Everybody thinks heckling is hysterical when they do it. When MSNBC's Chris Hayes asked Steny Hoyer if he'd have countenanced this behavior from Republicans when he was House majority leader, he ducked the question, because he clearly wouldn't have — and, in fact, he didn't. 

That goes double for those cheerleading at home or from the keyboard. If Republicans used the same tactics against a Democratic majority in defense of any issue, the outrage energy radiating out of the liberal blogosphere could light up Vegas for a thousand years.

The trouble with abandoning the rules because "it's essential now," or because "my side is right" is that every side believes this at every moment, with every issue. It's the kind of reasoning that didn't fool you when your parents pulled it on you when you were a kid. That's why you need someone with the moral force of John Lewis to label moments like this "#goodtrouble." (It will be interesting to see how much #goodtrouble members of the sit-in are interested in seeing on the floor during the Democratic National Convention and how many of them will be visiting a shuttered prison to support those who get into #goodtrouble outside.)

Even someone with as much lifetime moral credit as Lewis can't efface what a mess the Democrats' ultimate aim was here. One of the bills they chanted for contained increased background checks, but the other is the so-called "no fly, no buy" bill that seeks to ban suspected terrorists from buying guns. The proposed bill overwhelmingly dominated the rhetoric of the sit-in members, long and loud enough that you could forget that it wasn't the only one being suggested.

As has been noted for years and was brought up again Wednesday, no-fly lists are a civil rights and administrative nightmare. The criteria for appearing on them seem amorphous and lax to the point of uselessness. Nearly 650,000 people already appear on them — including, at one point, a baby, Ted Kennedy and John Lewis himself. Many of the people listed have zero relationship to terror groups. Once on the list, there is no mechanism for having yourself removed from it.

In case no fly, no buy's accuracy were ever in doubt, even to members of the sit-in, there was Hoyer again, talking to MSNBC. When Hayes asked him if he believed all 650,000 people on the no-fly lists really want to kill people, Hoyer replied, "Of course not. Absolutely not." 

The obverse poses just as much of a problem for the bill's supporters. Banning terror suspects from obtaining guns does nothing to deter the overwhelming majority of mass shooters, because they don't appear on the list. Members of the sit-in and their supporters have no answer for this other than the hope that this demonstration is the one that turns the tide, that this piece of legislation would be the first in the slow process of enacting meaningful gun control.

But that thinking poses yet more problems. The first, most obvious shortcoming to staking protest energy to passing the no fly, no buy bill is how to overcome the immediate sense of self-satisfied apathy that sets in once that is accomplished. Making no fly, no buy seem so necessary pushes more meaningful immediate reform into the background while risking equating it in the minds of voters with the end goal.

More importantly, what do you do with this piece of dogshit legislation once you have it? If the Democratic Party is still ostensibly the party of civil liberties, it will have lashed itself to a list that it should daily be trying to eradicate in its current form. Making gun-control legislation feasible by out-fearmongering the Republican Party and inflating existential threats to the United States only makes that list more vital. How do you turn around and trim a list you just argued constitutes a critical last line of defense between a citizenry and mortal terror?

The most charitable and probably most accurate reading is that the Democrats never expect no fly, no buy to pass at all — that the goal of the sit-in was ultimately nothing more than to show the insane obstructionism of the Republican Party in the face of ever more frequent mass slaughters. There is a powerful contrast in seeing one party break all the rules to keep you safe, and another hide behind antiquated procedure and try to skulk home to avoid facing a reckoning for their indifference.

But there is another ugliness here. In the long term, in two or three presidential-election cycles, we may witness meaningful gun-control legislation inspired by this week's actions in Congress, enacted with the same gradualism that eventually brought marriage equality to this country. But, in the immediate term, what the sit-in will generate is countless 30-second negative campaign ads about Republicans who wouldn't vote for gun control everyone can agree on because it's ultimately about a terror watch list. And that is a list that disproportionately and inaccurately targets Muslims and Arab-Americans. 

In an America that effectively synonymizes Islam and certain kinds of brown people with terror, what the Democrats are doing flirts uncomfortably with leveraging the same kind of fear of "the other" that animates baser things like Donald Trump and turns it into an instrument of the Democratic Party. It offers a clean, bipartisan, morally clear endorsement of what it's acceptable to be afraid of, enshrined as a progressive tactic, the first low step on a path supposedly leading to a higher goal.

Rep. John Lewis initiated an occupation of the House floor Wednesday morning to demand a vote on a "no fly, no buy" gun measure. Watch here.