Fed up with Congress' inaction on gun control in the wake of mass shootings, three Connecticut Democrats walked off the floor of the U.S. House Monday during a moment of silence for the 49 men and women slain in an Orlando nightclub.
"These so-called moments of silence … it's becoming grotesque," Rep. Joe Courtney said in an interview Tuesday. "The juxtaposition of these horrific events … the same chamber, which ought to be activated and engaged in a common-sense response, instead we get this 16-second blink of an eye as a substitute."
The protest — part of an evolving discussion on how lawmakers respond to the tragedies — was organized by Rep. Jim Himes, who was joined by Rep. John Larson, Courtney and other Democrats. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi stayed for the moment of silence but told reporters that members of her party have "had enough" of the ritual.
Earlier Monday, Himes delivered blistering remarks to his colleagues and signaled he wouldn't be participating in the moment of silence, held less than 48 hours after the deadliest shooting in the nation's history.
"Silence," he said. "That is how the leadership of the most powerful country in the world will respond to this week's massacre of its citizens. … Not me, not anymore. I will no longer stand here absorbing the faux concern, contrived gravity and tepid smugness of a House complicit in the weekly bloodshed."
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, said it was "shameful that anyone would try to use a moment of silence honoring victims of a brutal terrorist attack to advance their own political agenda."
Before Himes, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy touched a nerve when he chastised his colleagues for their chorus of statements offering "thoughts and prayers" following the Dec. 2 shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 dead.
He tweeted: "Your 'thoughts' should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your 'prayers' should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again."
Seth Moulton, a freshman House Democrat from Massachusetts, was among those who joined Himes' quiet protest. He initially posted on Twitter that his "thoughts and prayers" were with the victims, before changing his messaging.
"The tradition is to send 'thoughts and prayers' first, then perhaps demand policy change later," he said in a subsequent tweet. "I'm done with that."
A national Quinnipiac Poll in November showed 93 percent of respondents supported requiring background checks for all gun buyers. But Congress has been unable to pass legislation to enact universal background checks. And 58 percent polled in December supported a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons, another effort that has failed in Congress.
Larson said he is most disappointed that Congress wouldn't even vote on the measures. A background check bill was debated and failed in the Senate, but the House hasn't taken up the issue.
"The tyranny here is not to have a vote," Larson said Tuesday, adding that if Congress failed to vote, he didn't want to be part of "the charade" of holding a moment of silence for victims.
Moulton said there is a "terrible lack of courage among Republicans" unwilling to talk about gun control.
"Our job is to have debates and take votes," he said in an interview Tuesday. "And the Republicans in the House are so scared of the NRA, so scared of the Tea Party and so scared of their own leadership that they won't do their job."
Courtney said efforts like Himes' will continue to draw attention to politicians' unwillingness to even debate gun policy. He expected a "drumbeat" of efforts in the House and Senate to keep the spotlight on the issue, through amendments and motions if no specific gun laws are called.
While the NRA wields considerable power in Washington, "they're not omnipotent," Courtney said. "At some point public opinion does override that kind of influence."