WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Tuesday morning Vermont’s only Congressman, Peter Welch, followed a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, onto the floor of the House of Representatives and sat.
The sit-in was an effort to shame the Republicans who control the House into taking action on gun control, and it came after Democrats walked out on moment of silence following the mass shooting at Orlando, Fla., nightclub in which a single gunman killed 49 people and left another 53 injured.
“It just felt so fundamentally irresponsible,” said Welch. “I walked out.”
There have been 30 mass shootings in the U.S. since 20 children and six adults were killed in a school shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 20, 2012, said Welch.
“We always have a moment of silence, and we always follow it with complete inaction,” said Welch.
“We’ve done nothing,” he added. “It’s an astonishing situation. We can’t get a hearing. We can’t get a debate. We can’t get a vote.”
Democrats in the House were hoping to force a debate and vote on two measures before Congress – one to ban the sale of guns to people on the terrorist watch list and another to close loopholes allowing for the purchase of guns at gun shows and over the internet without a background check.
“There are individuals who have been deemed too dangerous to fly, and they can buy a gun,” said Welch.
Welch said, he too, has due process concerns about the terrorist watch list and that a process for disputing one’s presence on the list in an efficient and timely way was needed. “You can address the legitimate due process concerns,” he said.
As for the loophole in background checks, “It’s a big enough loophole you can drive a truck through it,” said Welch.
The sit-in itself was a reflection of the frustration of the American people, in Welch’s view.
By sitting down, Welch and his fellow Democrats “spoke out on behalf of millions of Americans who want Congress to do its job.”
It’s the job of Congress to address the issue of mass shootings and gun violence, in Welch’s view. He believes votes should be held and if Americans don’t like the way their representatives voted then can express their displeasure at the polls come November.
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has called the sit-in a public relations stunt.
But that is a difficult charge to make against Lewis, suggested Welch. “He has led a life of enormous physical and moral courage,” Welch said of his colleague.
Lewis put his life on his line throughout the Civil Rights Movement, beginning with the first Freedom Ride from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans in which black and white riders sat side-by-side. The riders were beaten by mobs at stops throughout the South.
He went on to lead the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during Freedom Summer in 1964, when SNCC organizers sought to bring African-Americans to the polls in Mississippi. Four volunteers were killed that summer and 80 were beaten. Arson, fire bombings and arrests were common.
Lewis and Hosea Williams led marchers across the Edward Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965 where were they were greeted by armed Alabama State Troopers. Lewis suffered a fractured skull in the attack that followed.
Asked what it meant to follow Lewis onto the House floor, Welch replied, “We stood on the shoulders of giants.”
Vermont Senators Pat Leahy and Bernie Sanders visited the House floor during the sit-in.
Welch remained on the floor throughout most of Tuesday night.
In response to the sit-in, Ryan recessed the House until July 5.