House sit-in drew attention to 'reasonable' gun control measures, Neal says

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A 25-hour takeover of the House of Representatives by Democrats "succeeded in drawing attention" to "a reasonable path forward" on gun control, according to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield.

Conceding there's "virtually no chance" House Republicans will allow the requested gun control votes, Neal told The Eagle the demonstration made waves with the press and generated an "overwhelmingly favorable" reaction from constituents.

The congressman, whose district includes all of Berkshire County, remained in the House until 3:30 a.m. on Thursday, and then took the floor for comments eight hours later. Dozens of Democratic lawmakers participated in the sit-in, and received support from public gatherings — who gathered outside shouting "hold the floor" — and colleagues like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who delivered food and coffee Thursday morning.

On the floor, Neal requested "two simple votes" on requiring mental health background checks on all gun buyers and banning people on the FBI no-fly list from purchasing firearms.

"Two basic opportunities for at least the minority in the House to express its will," Neal said.

Neal cited the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., last fall and the recent massacre in Orlando, Fla.

"In each one of these cases, deviant behavior might have been intercepted at an earlier stage if that individual had been required to go through a background check," he said. "We do that for most professional parts of our lives. We all go through vetting to secure positions in employment. There are these opportunities that we have to express ourselves, but there's always scrutiny of what it is we do and say."

"These are reasonable requests. They represent no threat to the hunter, the sportsman, or the gun collector," he said in an Eagle interview. "Instead, we're saying 'Let's offer reasonable proposals that might address the madness we've seen in Orlando, Colorado, San Bernardino and elsewhere.' These are mass executions."

On the other hand, a local gun shop owner looked skeptically at the Democrats' motivation.

Tom Decker, co-owner of Pete's Gun Shop in Adams, pointed out that many Senate Democrats voted against a similar measure on Monday.

"Those Democratic [House members] who are sitting in ought to be ashamed of themselves," Decker said, saying their colleagues in the Senate opposed measures that would have done "exactly what they're asking for."

The Senate bill he referred to, which was backed by Republicans and the NRA, would have barred people on the no-fly list from acquiring guns, but it also included a provision addressing concerns about due process for those he may mistakenly be on the list.

The terror watchlist system is secret and requires neither "concrete facts" nor "irrefutable evidence" to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist, according to government documents. The Terrorist Screening Database contains more than 800,000 names.

The due process provision would have allowed American citizens an opportunity to challenge their status as a suspected terrorist before a judge within three days of having their gun purchases blocked, but Democrats voted against the measure.

Neal dismissed the due process concerns.

"You don't get on the no-fly list because you've been going to meetings of the Red Cross," he said.

Senate Democrats prefer blocking not only those on the no-fly list from purchasing firearms, but anyone who has been the subject of a terrorism investigation at any time in the last five years.

Critics of the idea — including many progressives — point out that many people, disproportionately Muslims, made it on to the list by being entrapped by the FBI, a claim held up by a 2015 study in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called the sit-in a "publicity stunt."

Some of his colleagues were less generous.

"Democrats are staging a sit-in on the House floor," U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., wrote on Twitter. "They refuse to leave until our Constitution replaces due process with secret lists."

But U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., one of the leaders of the demonstration, said the action was justified.

"We have been too quiet for too long," he said. "There comes a time when you have to say something, when you have to make a little noise, when you have to move your feet. This is the time. Now is the time to get in the way. The time to act is now. We will be silent no more."

As the sit-in ended on Thursday, Lewis told reporters: "We must never, ever give up or give in. We must keep the faith, and we must come back here [when the House reconvenes] on July 5 more determined than ever before."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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