Rep. John Lewis: It's OK to Break House Rules 'To Uphold a Greater Law, a Moral Law'

Susan Jones | June 23, 2016 | 5:42am EDT
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In this frame grab taken from AP video, Georgia Rep. John Lewis leads more than 200 Democrats in shutting down the House's legislative work on Wednesday, June 22, 2016, staging a sit-in on the House floor and refusing to leave until they secured a vote on gun control measures before lawmakers' weeklong break. (AP Photo)

( - Supported by President Obama, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) justified Democrats' disruption of House business on Wednesday by saying, "It is always right to do right."

Applying 1960s tactics to the ongoing gun control debate, Lewis led Democrats in a noisy sit-in on the House floor, demanding a vote on gun control legislation that Republicans refuse to bring up.

"Sometimes you have to violate a rule of law to uphold a greater law, a moral law. We have a right to stand up, to speak up, to speak out. We have a right to sit down, or to sit-in, to engage in nonviolent protest. It is always right to do right," Lewis told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday.

"Many years ago, when I was only 20 years old, I participated in sit-ins," Lewis said. "And, by sitting down we were really standing up. So, by sitting down or sitting-in with my colleagues in the well of the House today, we're saying to the Republican leadership, to the Speaker and others, it is time to bring the bills to the floor and let us pass these bills, and not take a break."

Lewis expressed gratitude to President Obama, who tweeted his support: "Thank you John Lewis for leading on gun violence where we need it most."

But Speaker Paul Ryan called the Democrats' sit-in "nothing more than a publicity stunt."

"The House cannot operate without members following the rules of the institution, so the House is recessed subject to the call of the Chair," Ryan announced shortly after the protest began.

But ten hours later, Ryan gaveled the House to (dis)order. He continued with House business early into Thursday morning, over the chants and songs from Democrats.

Around 3:15 a.m. Thursday, Ryan adjourned the House until after July 4th, but Democrats stayed on the floor.

With House cameras turned off, Democrats used their cell phones to live stream their all-nighter, even though House rules forbid the use of electronic devices to display audio or video recordings of House proceedings or take pictures on the House floor.

Lewis told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Democrats have no intention of leaving the House floor anytime soon. "I will continue to confer with my colleagues, we will continue the plan, but we're going to sit-in for a while, or sit down for awhile."

Blitzer asked Lewis if he thinks the Democrats' gun control legislation would pass the House, even if it did come up for a vote.

"It is my belief that we should test the legislation on the floor,” Lewis responded. “Put it on the floor, and almost every single Democratic member will vote for that legislation and I think we can get enough Republican colleagues to vote for it."

Even though similar legislation failed this week in the Senate, Lewis insisted, "now is the time for action."

Lewis also told CNN that he didn't tell Republicans "that we were going to sit-in, we were going to occupy the well of the House."

"Do you think you should talk to them to see if you could work out some arrangement?" Blitzer asked.

"Well, I think it's up to them now to come and talk to us. We were moved by what we felt that we had to do, and we're moved by what I call the 'Spirit of History,' to find a way to get in the way."

Also appearing on CNN, Speaker Paul Ryan said, "We are not going to take away a citizen's...constitutional rights without due process." Ryan said a sit-in is not the way to bring up legislation.

"Now let's focus on the issue at hand here -- terrorism, and let's find out what we need to do find out what to prevent future terrorist attacks."

Ryan said Democrats aren't trying to come up with a solution to a problem, they're just trying to get attention.

"People have an individual, guaranteed right" to own guns, Ryan said. "Wolf Blitzer could be thrown on the terror watch list tomorrow, or Wolf Blitzer could be on the no-fly list tomorrow, and with no recourse, and your rights would be infringed upon. We're not going to take away your rights without your due process. That is what the Constitution requires, and we're going to stick with the Constitution.

“That's why we conservatives do what we do. We think that there are a lot of issues that need to be dealt with here as it relates to terrorism -- radical Islamic jihad, homegrown terrorists are getting radicalized. There's a lot to do here. Let's focus on this.

"And yes, we do believe that if someone is on a watch list trying to buy a gun that the authorities need to have the procedures in place so that they're notified and they have a chance to do something about it. We agree with that. And that's what we ought to work on codifying,” Ryan said.

“Instead, we're looking at publicity stunts. We're not looking at solutions. We're not talking about terrorism. We're talking about gun control, which goes beyond a person's constitutional rights."

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