WASHINGTON — Another mass shooting. Another moment of silence. Another empty gesture amid a grisly routine, thought Representative Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat.
So when House Speaker Paul Ryan gaveled the House to order early last week and bowed his head in memory of the 49 victims of the June 12 Orlando nightclub massacre — the largest mass shooting in the country’s history — Clark walked out, along with several other Democrats.
The dramatic sign of defiance was the beginning of a rapidly swelling movement that thrust the two-term congresswoman from Melrose into the national spotlight on the issue of gun violence. Clark’s profile rose to the fore this week when she and civil rights icon John Lewis, a longtime Georgia congressman, led a 25-hour sit-in on the House floor that concluded Thursday.
Their goal had been to force Ryan and other GOP House leaders to hold a vote on legislation that would expand background checks and prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns. The sit-in did not result in a vote. But it did attract a massive explosion of news coverage, threw House business into disarray, and prompted a frustrated Ryan — at 3 a.m. Thursday — to declare the House in recess for the July Fourth holiday.
“I don’t think we anticipated how powerful our message would be,” Clark said in an interview Thursday.
Ryan disparaged the protest, saying it “set a very dangerous precedent.” He said he had no intention of passing measures that could erode gun ownership rights.
The showdown played out live over legislators’ social media feeds after Republicans shut off C-SPAN’s video access to the floor. Supporters of gun control flooded the House visitors’ gallery. Hundreds of others held vigil in solidarity on the plaza surrounding the Capitol, waving signs that said “Disarm Hate.” Pizza deliveries were sent from around the country .
Clark said she hatched the plan for the sit-in with Lewis. The two sat on the House floor last Thursday plotting the best way to call attention to their shared frustration over legislative inaction on gun laws.
The 76-year-old Lewis, tapping into his own experience as a young man protesting segregation across the South, suggested a sit-in.
The Senate had just agreed to vote on similar gun legislation after a nearly 15-hour filibuster led by Democrat Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were killed in a Newtown school shooting in 2012.
“You know when you have a partner in John Lewis, it is something people will want to be a part of,” Clark said. “When he brings his bridge to our history, his bridge to justice, you know this will permeate through the political obstruction and reach the American people and those grieving families.”
Clark and Lewis began recruiting colleagues over the weekend, including Representative John Larson of Connecticut, who would serve as floor moderator for the sit-in.
Clark and Lewis finalized their sit-in plans Tuesday and drafted a letter to Ryan outlining their demands.
On Wednesday, Clark packed her suitcase with several changes of clothes and tucked five granola bars and a toothbrush in her purse. Then shortly before noon, she sat with legs crossed in her pants suit, on the blue carpet of the House of Representatives.
Legislators broke House rules and used their cellphones to display the proceedings on Facebook and Periscope. Clark’s image — gray bob, royal blue blazer, and chunky pearls -- was retweeted thousands of times.
By the wee hours of the morning, some members, armed with pillows and blankets, took catnaps on the floor. Clark said she nodded off for about 20 minutes, sitting slumped over her cellphone at 5:30 a.m. “I startled myself awake. It was embarrassing,” she said.
As a gray dawn emerged over a rainy capital, fewer than two dozen lawmakers remained in the well of the House. The sit-in ended around 1 p.m. Thursday.
“We will regroup and strategize on how to keep this issue alive [after the July Fourth break],’’ Clark said. “We want to make sure this doesn’t just fade away.”
Tracy Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.