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Paul Ryan, what are you afraid of?

This photo provided by Rep. Chillie Pingree, D-Maine, shows Democrat members of Congress protesting the lack of a vote on gun control on the House floor.Rep. Chillie Pingree via AP/Associated Press

A clumsy act of censorship by House Republicans Wednesday says more about the party’s timidity than it could possibly have intended. The Republican leadership abruptly shut down the video feed from the House floor to prevent CSPAN viewers from seeing a protest by House Democrats, who were pressing for action on gun control.

The same House has endured debates on war, impeachment, taxes, and any number of other contentious issues — all with the cameras rolling. A call to action on guns, though, was apparently too much for the tender feelings of Speaker Paul Ryan, whose office shut down CSPAN’s access.

It was a telling move. Censorship is not something that politicians who are confident of the righteousness of their beliefs bother with. If anticontrol lawmakers genuinely believe their abject fealty to the gun lobby is in the public interest, they should have no problem with debating gun-control proponents in front of the cameras. Likewise, if the Democrats who support gun control were really so misguided, the Republicans would presumably want the American people to see them Wednesday as they argued for a bad cause.


Rather, turning off the camera is a desperation move for those who know they have no excuse and need to hide from the public. Pulling the plug on coverage of the gun protest was uncomfortably similar to the actions of a much earlier Congress, which forbade members from even discussing the issue of slavery out of deference to the powerful cotton lobby.

In those days, Massachusetts representative and former president John Quincy Adams led the fight against the so-called gag rule, which led to calls for his ouster from the House. He was admonished for breaking the rules of the House — just as a spokeswoman for Ryan justified the shut-off on Wednesday by saying, “the House cannot operate without members following the rules of the institution.”

Proslavery interests in those days were afraid of even allowing discussion on the House floor, and the supine agreement of politicians of the day has gone down in history as evidence of that lobby’s power. The gun lobby is not as vicious, but the damage it enables in contemporary America certainly ranks it among today’s gravest problems, and it seems to have a similar stranglehold on lawmakers and a similar ability to command unprecedented crackdowns on the airing of dissenting views in Congress.


History proved why 19th-century proslavery politicians had good reason to fear what would happen if they didn’t go to such extraordinary lengths to prevent debate. Mr. Speaker, what are you afraid of?