The #NoBillNoBreak Sit-In Was Pretty Much Everything I Hate About Democratic Politics

This week, Democratic Congresspeople occupied the floor of the House of Representatives in an attempt to force votes on what they called “commonsense” gun control bills.

Nearly 100 Democrats led by Georgia Rep. John Lewis demanded a vote on measures to expand background checks and block gun purchases by some suspected terrorists in the aftermath of last week’s massacre in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 people in a gay nightclub. It was the worst shooting in modern U.S. history.

“No bill, no break,” shouted Democrats, who demanded that Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., keep the House in session through its planned weeklong recess next week to debate and vote on gun legislation.

The Democrats flaunted this tactic under the banner “#NoBillNoBreak,” since they threatened to keep the House from going on recess after this Friday (they concluded the protest after approximately 25 hours and members went on recess as scheduled on Friday). While their efforts on the surface might look noble, especially considering that the deadliest shooting massacre in the history of the United States took place this month, this sit-in is actually extremely frustrating for its shortsightedness, its ineffectiveness and its selfish motives.

Here’s what really irked me about #NoBillNoBreak:

1. It’s a big spectacle that will accomplish nothing.

Remember in grade school when you worked on a big group project, and that one kid didn’t help at all until the last minute, at which time they just threw some glitter on your poster and took all the credit? That’s kind of what this sit-in is.

Gun control reform will not happen overnight after a theatrical sit-in. The Democrats know this, yet they trudged on for politically advantageous reasons (more on that later). No, gun control will finally happen when enough little guys put in the grunt work to write the bills and elect the politicians up and down the ballot who want to end the gun violence epidemic in that country. That’s a lot of work and it’s going to take time.

2. Parts of what the Democrats are pushing are deeply undemocratic.

The Democrats wanted votes on two pieces of legislation:

House Democrats said they wanted to vote on legislation to expand background checks for all commercial gun sales. Currently, only federally licensed dealers are required to perform background checks. Democratic legislation that would have expanded background checks to all sales at gun shows and online stalled in the Senate on Monday night.

Democrats are also pushing in the House to vote on a measure aimed at preventing suspected terrorists from being able to buy a firearm.

Universal background checks on gun sales: great — I fully support this. Background checks would go far to reduce gun violence.

It’s the second bit of legislation, the closing of the so-called “terrorist loophole,” that goes against the principals Democrats should hold dearly. Alex Pareene explains:

The Democratic proposal has been catch-phrased and hashtagged as “no fly, no buy,” because it would prevent people who end up on government terrorism watchlists, including the “no fly list,” from purchasing firearms. This would do little to reduce gun violence, but it would add an additional layer of surveillance and government scrutiny to a particular class of people.

That certainly sounds like a solid principle on which to take a stand—terrorists shouldn’t have AR-15s! Meanwhile, most gun deaths in the United States are not caused by suspected terrorists armed with military-style semi-automatic rifles. The vast majority of gun deaths—suicides as well as homicides—are caused by handguns, and the majority of people firing those guns are not suspected terrorists (which invariably refers, in contemporary discourse, to Muslims, and no other groups or individuals dedicated to political violence).

The no-fly list is a civil rights disaster by every conceivable standard. It is secret, it disproportionately affects Arab-Americans, it is error-prone, there is no due process or effective recourse for people placed on the list, and it constantly and relentlessly expands. As of 2014, the government had a master watchlist of 680,000 people, forty percent of whom had “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.” This is both an absurdly large number of people to arbitrarily target in gun control legislation, and far, far too few to have any meaningful effect on actual gun ownership, let alone gun violence.

Zaid Jilani expands on the point:

While sit-in participants are also advocating for expanded background checks and an assault weapons ban, their primary call to action is for a vote on a measure that would ban gun sales to people listed on a federal government watchlist – a move clearly designed more for its political potency than for its effectiveness.

And the government’s consolidated terrorist watchlist is notoriously unreliable. It has ensnared countless innocent Americans, including disabled war veterans and members of Congress. Nearly half of the people on these watch lists were designated as having “no recognized terrorist group affiliation,” according to documents obtained by The Intercept in 2014.

Indeed, many of those involved in today’s sit-in have themselves recognized these problems in the past. In a 2014 letter addressed to the Department of Homeland Security, lawmakers  including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the civil rights hero leading today’s sit-in, complained that the current process for appealing designation on the federal no-fly lists “provides no effective means of redress for unfair or incorrect designations.”

3. It’s cynical politics at its worst.

During and immediately after the sit-in, I received no less than six emails from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee asking me to donate to support House Democrats staging the sit-in. After attacks like the one in Orlando, we often hear cries not to politicize the tragedy. I, for one, think it’s important to push for solutions in the wake of preventable tragedies, but using those calamities for fundraising is another thing entirely.

Ian Millhiser, perhaps playing his cards too early, laid out the Democrats’ ultimate plan:

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So, not only are they going to make false claims (that anyone on the terrorist watch list is definitely a terrorist), but in the end they just want ammunition for attack ads. This is the type of tragedy politicizing that nobody should accept.


I almost always vote for Democrats when I have the opportunity to do so. But this is because their policies generally align with my own beliefs more closely than do the policies of other parties. I have no particular fondness for the institution of the party, and this kind of grimy politicking is only going to push progressive voters, like myself, away.

I hope to see more Democratic members of Congress championing progressive policies, and fewer members piggybacking on regressive legislation for a quick buck.

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