The speaker of the House clanged his hefty wooden gavel five deliberate times, then he paused and pursed his lips.
“Shhhhh…” he hissed into the microphone, staring out across the packed floor of the U.S. House of Representatives Monday night.
It had been less than 48 hours since a Florida gunman – armed with an assault rifle, a pistol and a well of deranged hate — opened fire on a crowded Orlando gay club early Sunday morning revelers danced inside. He killed 49 people and injured 53 others. The massacre left behind carnage unprecedented in U.S. mass shooting history.
More than Virginia Tech. More than Sandy Hook. More than Aurora or San Bernardino.
Which was why on Monday, as thousands gathered for vigils across the world, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) asked his fellow lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to participate once again in a ritual that — like the mass shootings that inspire them — feels all too familiar in America.
“The chair asks that the House now observe a moment of silence in memory of the victims of the terrorist attack in Orlando,” Ryan said.
As he crossed his chest and bowed his head, most of the chamber followed suit.
But a handful of Democrats walked out.
What followed the silence was an eruption of protest from Democratic representatives critical of Congress’s inability to pass — or on Monday even consider — gun control legislation that has been proposed in the wake of an American mass shooting epidemic. Democrats shouted “Where’s the bill?” and “No leadership!” after Ryan silenced South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn’s (D) attempt to ask when gun legislation would be considered, reported the Associated Press.
Online, House Democrats were criticized for being “disrespectful” to victims and family members of the Orlando atrocity, for politicizing a gesture meant to symbolize peace and reflection.
“It’s shameful that anyone would try to use a moment of silence honoring victims of a brutal terrorist attack to advance their own political agenda,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong told CBS News. In a tweet, she called the tactic “disheartening.”
But the actions of the protesting Democrats speak to the mounting frustration that some in their party have expressed with each fresh American massacre — and they echo the calls for change coming from the victims and their friends and family.
Since the rampage early Sunday, people on Twitter called for action and used the hashtags #Enough and #NoMoreSilence. Soon, #WheresTheBill was added to the mix.
Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes (D), whose district borders Newtown, Conn., where 20 first-graders and six adults were killed inside an elementary school in 2012, was the first to announce Monday afternoon that he would not show up for the moment of silence this time. He addressed the stance on the House floor, and said in a tweet, “Our silence does not honor the victims, it mocks them.”
Himes called the ritual “obnoxious expressions of smug incompetence” in an interview with the Associated Press, and late Monday on the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC, he said in the immediate aftermath of the shooting he thought about how the inevitable moment of silence for the Orlando victims would be about the dozenth time in recent memory he’d make that “dreary trudge” to the House floor because of “another mass slaughter.”
“And I got to thinking that this isn’t a town square. It’s not a church,” he told Maddow. “It’s 535 people who with a day and a half of work [could pass] some bills around policies, which by the way a vast majority of Americans support.”
Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) posted a similar pledge to her social media accounts. On Facebook, she wrote: “If the LGBT community has taught us anything, it’s that silence is the enemy of progress. I refuse to take part in a moment of silence by a Congress that takes part in empty gestures rather than do something — anything — that could actually prevent these horrific acts from happening. We can’t reduce gun violence with silence.”
Later Monday night, another lawmaker from Massachusetts, Rep. Seth Moulton (D), said he would no longer attend moments of silence for shooting victims either. “Walked out of my first one tonight,” Moulton tweeted.
On Sunday, Moulton had shared on social media that his “thoughts and prayers” were with the Orlando victims, drawing backlash from voters who said that gesture wasn’t enough. After talking with his staff, he said on Twitter, he decided to align with Himes’s stance.
These representatives aren’t the first to boycott moments of silence after tragic gun violence. Rep. Robin L. Kelly (D-Ill.) made the same pledge last December after a deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.
“Another mass shooting, another moment of silence,” Kelly told the Atlantic in December. “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 will “we … start taking action?” she asked.
On Monday, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) remained on the floor for the moment of the silence, but later told reporters that her party had “had enough” of congressional inaction after mass shootings.
“The moment of silence is an act of respect, and we supported that,” Pelosi told the AP. “But it is not a license to do nothing.”