A gun control sit-in turns into a tantrum

In this image from video provided by House Television, House Speaker Paul Ryan stands at the podium Wednesday while Democrats protest to demand votes on gun control.
In this image from video provided by House Television, House Speaker Paul Ryan stands at the podium Wednesday while Democrats protest to demand votes on gun control. AP

When a group of U.S. House members stood up for gun control by sitting on the House floor Wednesday afternoon, I cheered inside.

If you believe that too many are killed by guns that are too easy to get, you probably cheered, too.

We have these kinds of moments every so often in America, when people decide they’re too fed up to do the usual, polite thing. This time it was our leaders, who argued a point not with press releases and talking points, but with a simple expression of exasperation and vulnerability. They sat.

It was powerful. It had historic overtones. But then it turned into something less.

Warning: What follows might sound a lot like tapping a pointer on a blackboard. Sorry in advance for that.

But what began as an expression of civil disobedience Wednesday became little more than a tantrum.

You might have missed that part. It happened around 10 p.m. and again later, when House Speaker Paul Ryan entered the chamber so that the House could vote on some measures. He was met with jeers from his Democratic colleagues, who did their best to shout him down and stop him from conducting House business. When votes were cast, anyway, they yelled “shame, shame” at him and other Republicans.

All of which might make you say “good.” Sometimes you have to break some glass to accomplish something, right?

In this case, the accomplishment was symbolic. Democrats weren’t going to win any House vote on gun control this week, and they didn’t really want another debate. What they wanted was to say “no more,” the way Americans have in important moments throughout our history.

It’s no mistake that the central figure in Wednesday’s sit-in was Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who a half-century ago endured arrests and beatings when he registered voters and protested segregation as a Freedom Rider. (House Speaker Ryan, who called Wednesday’s sit-in a “publicity stunt” while Republicans turned off the TV cameras in the chamber, looked small in comparison.)

But when Democrats stood back up Wednesday night to confront Republicans, they lost their high ground.

Time for the pointer on the chalkboard: There are rules in the House and Senate about introducing and voting on bills. Those rules allow Congress to function – or at least stave off chaos – and like them or not now, Democrats used the rules in much the same way when they were in charge.

There’s nothing wrong with calling more attention to Republican inaction on guns, even by temporarily occupying the House chamber. But shouting down colleagues and blocking the House from doing business accomplishes all the wrong things.

It allows one more line to be crossed, both in how our elected officials treat each other and how they respect the body they belong to. Guess what might happen the next time Republicans find an issue as important to them as guns were this week to Democrats?

For sure, this week’s ugliness will unite the Democratic base, not to mention bring in dollars. Hillary Clinton’s campaign hurried Thursday to send out fundraising fetchers that mentioned the sit-ins, just as Republicans do whenever they want to turn voter outrage into campaign cash.

That’s the political universe we live in now, one that incentivizes partisan behavior. It’s how a powerful protest turns into embarrassing foot stomping. It’s how a dysfunctional government just got a little worse.

Peter: @saintorange; pstonge@charlotteobserver.com