For weeks, Democrats have lamented that moments of silence for the victims of gun violence are empty gestures if they’re not paired with actions to stop future violence. But even before the shootings in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino, one Democrat has been silently protesting Congress’s inaction by refusing to participate in the House’s ritual recognition of the fallen.
“Another mass shooting, another moment of silence,” Rep. Robin Kelly said Tuesday. “I haven’t stood [for a moment of silence] for a year. … I can’t stand anymore. Some people may feel that’s disrespectful, but I feel it’s respectful to the victims and to their families. When is this gonna end? When are we gonna do more than stand? When are we going start taking action?”
Kelly’s message echoes what Democrats have been saying in recent weeks, though few others have joined her seated protests. “ A moment of silence is not action,” said Democratic Caucus chair Xavier Becerra. “If the only thing Congress is going to do is hold moments of silence every time someone is tragically gunned down … we must act.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had a similar message Tuesday. “We have moments of silence on the floor over and over again on the occasion of high-profile attacks on our people, but we cannot remain silent,” she said. “For us to honor the responsibilities that we have to protect and defend the American people—we must not only have moments of silence, we must have days of action.”
Behind the scenes, Kelly has been urging colleagues to join her protests—and apply more pressure to force the GOP to act. During a meeting of the Democratic whip team last Thursday, fellow Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky told those assembled they had to do something on the issue. Then Kelly spoke up. “I just couldn't help myself,” she said. “So I got up and I said, 'You know, you guys, I don't stand up anymore because I feel like we stand up, sit down, and we don't do anything. It's almost a joke in a way.'”
Kelly’s message was well-received, she said, though she understands it won’t be easy for some to join her. “Some people don't agree that we should do that,” she said. “Some people think they would get slammed [politically]. … Some have sat with me. Some feel like they can't do it. There have been some that have sat with me, then stood up. I know it's hard. It's just what I feel in my heart is the right thing to do.”
For Kelly, the issue is one that hits close to home. Her district on the south side of Chicago has been plagued by shootings, and she won her seat in a largely gun-focused 2013 special election. Kelly’s primary opponent, former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, had the support of the National Rifle Association. Kelly was backed by $2 million from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pro-gun control super PAC. In 2014, she put out a report detailing the prevalence of gun violence in America.
“Believe me, you know where I represent,” she said. “I'm not being disrespectful at all.”
Inaction isn’t the only thing that troubles Kelly; she’s also bothered that moments of silence only happen for the shootings that end up on national news broadcasts. “We don't stand up for individuals,” she said. “We only care if you die in a mass shooting. … 30 people die a day [from gun violence], and they might die alone. We don't talk about that as much.”
Kelly said her message received a “rousing” response in the meeting, and Democratic leadership has supported her efforts on the issue. But it might be a long shot to get many members to refuse to stand en masse. Still, she noted the one undisclosed member, reeling from a shooting in their home state, remained seated during a recent moment of silence. She’s hoping it won’t take circumstances like that to get more people to join her.