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In Memoriam

For These House Members Who Staged the Sit-In, Gun Violence is Deeply Personal

"I know what it’s like to see a gun pointed at you and wonder if you are going to live."

The 911 dispatcher picked up the phone and heard children screaming. Then she heard five gunshots. Knowing she would eventually have to testify about the call, she focused on counting the blasts. It was only later that she realized that she had also heard the last words of the 11-year-old girl who’d been killed by them:

“Uncle, please don’t kill me,” the girl screamed. “It’s not my fault.”

The gunman was the ex-boyfriend of the child’s mother, who was still furious about their break-up.

The dispatcher was Norma Torres, now a congresswoman representing a district in California’s Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles. Torres was one of several dozen Democrats who staged a nearly 26-hour protest on the House floor on Wednesday and Thursday, in an attempt to pressure the Republican leadership into bringing two gun control bills up for a vote.

She was also one of at least six Democrats who participated in the sit-in and spoke about a deeply personal experience with gun violence. “I ended up being her only witness,” Torres said Wednesday evening, in describing why the call had seared into her memory.

The sit-in drew sharp criticism from Republicans, including Speaker Paul Ryan, who called it a “publicity stunt” that threatened the integrity of Congress. “We can disagree on policy but we do so within the bounds of order and respect for the system, otherwise it all falls apart,” he said at a news conference on Thursday.

For Democrats, politics were clearly part of the calculus. The bills they support would prevent people on the terror watch list from buying firearms and expand background checks to gun shows — measures that are overwhelmingly popular, according to public opinion polls. This is an election year, and forcing Republicans to take an unpopular stand counts as a win.  

The two House bills addressed the same topics as four bills that failed in the Senate Monday, a vote that was spurred by a similar political protest: a 15-hour filibuster six days earlier.

But that so many of the Democrats involved in the sit-in had experienced a close-up encounter with gun violence serves to remind how prevalent shootings are in the U.S. Each year, about 33,000 people die from a gun, many in a suicide, and another 70,000 are injured. The ripple effect is felt by family, friends — and people like Torres, who bear witness.

“I think people really need to hear about how gun violence impacts more than the people that are killed, and more than just the family,” she tells The Trace.

Other lawmakers who spoke about their encounter with gun violence included Marcia Fudge, who represents Warrensville Heights, Ohio, whose only brother was shot and killed; Yvette Clark, from Brooklyn, New York, who spoke about how she saw a former city council colleague gunned down by a political rival; and Bobby Rush, from Chicago, whose son was killed fleeing armed robbers.

“What I remember most, besides this picture of my son laying in that hospital bed, swollen up twice his normal size,” Rush said, “was my daughter, her mother falling on the floor of the hospital, screaming, screaming. She said, ‘Dad, Dad, do something. I could not have felt more helpless.’”

Rush said he was haunted by the “primal scream” of his son’s mother. “It’s time to end this primal scream in our nation, and it’s time to end it right now,” he said.

Elijah Cummings, who has represented Baltimore for the last two decades, recalled the 2011 shooting death of his 20-year-old nephew, Christopher Cummings, during a pre-dawn robbery at his Norfolk, Virginia, apartment. “I’ll never forget visiting his room the next day and seeing his brains splattered on the walls,” Cummings said.

Debbie Dingell, who represents Detroit’s western suburbs, spoke 12 hours into the sit-in about how her father threatened her mother with a gun when she was an 8th grader — and how she tried to grab it from him.

Her father, she said, suffered from depression and “should not have had access to a gun.”

She continued: “I know what it’s like to see a gun pointed at you and wonder if you are going to live. And I know what it’s like to hide in a closet and pray to God, ‘Do not let anything happen to me.’”

Dingell lamented the fact that convicted stalkers, and domestic abusers like her father, can still own guns.

Reached by phone on Thursday, Dingell says speaking publicly about her experience left her shaken. “Talking about gun violence is very personal and very hard for me. It’s very real. But if I could keep anyone from experiencing what my family experienced, I would. I had two sisters and a brother, and I don’t know that any of us were ever okay.”

[Photo: Courtesy of Rep. Norma Torres’s Twitter account]