A few days after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I was watching a basketball game at my sons’ high school. I looked around at the kids cheering, in support of their friends and their school. I thought about how moments like this, a rowdy basketball game, are what high school should be about. But the reality is high school today lives in the shadow of gun violence.
One of my sons was a senior in high school when Parkland happened, and he helped lead a local March For Our Lives protest against gun violence. Despite their actions, he and his friends told me that they ‘felt the government did not care about them’ as it stood idly by while students like them were slaughtered.
If they did not feel seen in a quiet suburb of Boston, imagine the despair of communities where gun violence is a daily occurrence, the rural areas plagued by suicide, and the families of the 40,000 people that die every year from gun violence in the United States.
My son, his friends, and millions of people across the country felt hopeless. I understood why.
In the summer of 2016, 49 people were gunned down at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida and I was shaken to my core. Dozens of young people were dancing at an LGBTQ+ club, enjoying their lives to the fullest, and they were murdered.
Former Speaker Paul Ryan honored their lives with a brief moment of silence on the House floor. It felt like a collective shrug, “what are you going to do?” For almost a decade, Republican leadership let a grisly ritual play out: mass shooting, a moment of silence, then nothing. They did nothing after moviegoers were slaughtered in Aurora, kindergartners were murdered in Newtown, and after one of their own colleagues, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was shot while doing her job. They led a masterclass in legislative inaction for years, manufacturing outrage and spouting off talking points that were hand-crafted by the NRA.
I knew Democrats had to put a stick in the spokes. We had to show the American people that we heard their cries. Civil rights legend and leader of “good trouble” Congressman John Lewis and I decided to hold a sit-in on the House floor until Speaker Ryan would allow us a vote on gun control legislation.
After 24 hours, it was over, and when the dust settled, there was no movement on gun legislation in the House. There were, however, a series of rules proposed on what Members could or could not record on the House floor after we livestreamed our sit-in.
Although we didn’t change the laws, we did spark a conversation.
A year and a half after the sit-in, I recorded a video on the fifth anniversary of the Newtown shooting.
The video was an open letter to future victims of gun violence, apologizing for Congress’s cowardice. My hope was that no one else would have to die. So, when the Parkland tragedy struck and my son and his friends expressed their despair, my heart ached both for the loss of life and the loss of faith that young people experienced in their government.
What we didn’t know at the time was that the student protests would start something that Republican leadership could not contain. Across the country, millions of people banded together to create a national movement dedicated to ending gun violence and demanded accountability from their elected representatives.
This year, I was proud to bring one of these students as my guest to the State of the Union. Joining students across the country, Angela Tejada-Soliz organized and led a walkout at Malden High School to stand in solidarity against gun violence. These students marched in March, protested through the summer, and they voted in November.
On January 3, House Democrats took the majority in Congress and the inaction on gun violence came to an end.
Two weeks after being sworn in, Democrats introduced The Background Checks Act, a bill that would close the ‘gun show loophole’ by requiring a criminal background check upon purchase of a firearm. 97% of Americans support this commonsense measure that is grounded in a simple principle: guns should not be in the hands of dangerous people.
Democrats are committed to taking a full vote on the House floor on this bill at the end of the month, but that’s not all. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on gun violence in a decade, and I introduced a bill, the Animal Violence Exposes Real Threat (AVERT) of Future Gun Violence Act, that will prohibit individuals with misdemeanor convictions for animal cruelty from possessing firearms.
Families, students, and survivors stood up, and House Democrats listened, proving that when we work together and fight for what is right, we can make our country stronger and safer. Finally, we are bringing change.