The children at Sandy Hook elementary school had just been standing for the daily Pledge of Allegiance when the gunman shot his way into the school and murdered 20 of them, along with six adults on that morning four years ago.
On Wednesday, the Republican congressman filling in for the speaker of the House used the same oath to delay a band of Democratic representatives from continuing a sit-in demonstration for action on gun control.
“Members are asked to remain standing for the Pledge of Allegiance,” intoned the speaker pro tempore, Rep. Ted Poe of Texas.
Poe then led a recitation of the very words that had been broadcast over the Sandy Hook school’s public address system on Dec. 14, 2012. The moment was all the more shameful because one of the protesting Democrats had just read aloud the names and ages of the 20 youngsters who had been in their final hour when they stood with their hands over their hearts.
“Charlotte Bacon, 6 years old.
“Daniel Barden, 7.
“Olivia Engel, 6.
“Josephine Gay, 7.
“Dylan Hockley, 6.
“Madeleine Hsu, 6.
“Catherine Hubbard, 6.
“Chase Kowalski, 7.
“Jesse Lewis, 6.
“Ana Marquez-Greene, 6.
“James Mattioli, 6.
“Grace McDonnell, 7.
“Emilie Parker, 6.
“Jack Pinto, 6.
“Noah Pozner, 6.
“Caroline Previdi, 6.
“Jessica Rekos, 6.
“Avielle Richman, 6.
“Benjamin Wheeler, 6.
“Allison Wyatt, 6.”
The list had been accompanied by an hour of impassioned speeches about the need for sane gun control. The talk had culminated with the dramatic announcement of a ’60s-style sit-in on the carpeted floor of the House.
“Mr. Speaker, we sit down so we can stand up for America,” declared Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
The response from the speaker pro tempore was typical.
“Pursuant to clause 12(a) of rule I, the chair declares the House in recess until noon today,” he said.
The House recessed at 11:25 a.m. The protesting Democrats were still sitting when Poe called the body back into session 38 minutes later.
“The House will be in order,” Poe said, “The House will be in order.”
To “be in order” meant to stop sitting on the floor. The protesters remained where they were. Poe invoked one way to get them to their feet.
“The chair wishes to call on the chaplain for the prayer,” Poe said. “Will members please be in order for the prayer by the chaplain?”
Rev. Patrick Conroy stepped up to do as bid.
“Father of mercy, we give you thanks for giving us another day,” he began.
Conroy seemed to perceive no irony in such an opening minutes after the reading of the Sandy Hook victims’ names. None of those youngsters would ever see another minute.
“Bless the members of the people’s House,” Conroy continued. “May all their deliberations give rise to understanding. You have called us to serve this nation by your divine inspiration... “
Conroy also seemed to perceive no irony in saying this to an institution that had failed to do anything in the aftermath of those murders and thousands upon thousands of other gun killings.
“…May we reach the destiny you have in mind for us, and may all that is done be for your greater honor and glory. Amen.”
To our greater shame and infamy, the most recent of those victims included 20-month-old Rashad Halford of Fresno, California, shot on Tuesday night while in his father’s arms. The boy succumbed to his wounds early Wednesday morning, too young even to learn the pledge that another cleric, Rev. Francis Bellamy, had composed for schoolchildren back in 1892.
The speaker pro tempore now used the Pledge of Allegiance to keep the protesters on their feet. But the oath was no sooner done than the protesters were back to sitting.
“Under clause 2 of rule I, the chair is charged with preserving order and decorum in the proceedings of the House,” Poe said. “The chair finds that the House is currently not in a state of order due to the presence of members in the well who are not under recognition.”
Poe could have been a principal addressing rebellious pupils.
“The chair would ask members to please leave the well so that the House may proceed with business,” he went on.
Poe then declared another recess at 12:03 p.m. Ten hours and one minute later, at 10:04 p.m., the speaker himself, Paul Ryan, stepped up. He looked more disturbed by having these Democratic representatives still sitting on the carpet than he ever does by gunshot victims sprawled on streets across America.
“The chair wishes to make an announcement regarding decorum in the House chamber,” Ryan said. “The chair appreciates that members will differ on matters of policy and will seek to express those differences. “
He continued, “But the chair would hope that the business of the House could be conducted in a fashion that reflects positively on the dignity and decorum of this institution to which we all belong and serve. The chair would ask members to please leave the well so that the House may proceed with business.”
That business had led to the Congress doing nothing at all, even when it came to preventing people on the terrorist watch list from acquiring weapons. Rep. Pete King of New York introduced the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act at the behest of the Bush administration back in 2007.
“The Democrats were against it because they wanted to show they were against anything Bush,” King recalled on Thursday.
He has reintroduced the bill every two years with a changing roster of supporters and opponents. It was never even discussed in the House chamber.
“Nobody would mention it,” King noted.
That has all changed.
“Suddenly the whole Congress comes to a halt over it,” King marveled.
The Democrats were now so passionately in favor of the bill that they were staging a sit-in demanding a vote on it.
“And now the Republicans are against it because they want to show they’re for guns no matter what,” King said.
King was not about to join the sit-in. He did seem pleased that a compromise version of the bill reached the Senate floor on Thursday. But the bill was tabled, for the time being neither passed nor killed.
The sit-in continued at the House, where the Republican leadership pushed a pre-dawn vote on a spending bill. The legislation included Zika research funding but also had provisions the Senate seems all but sure to reject. The House then recessed until after the Fourth of July holiday, having virtually guaranteed that there would be no imminent action on either guns or Zika.
The sit-in by the Democrats continued past noon on Thursday. The leading protester, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, told his fellow protesters that they had to continue the fight after the break. “Never, ever get lost in a sea of despair,” Lewis said. “We must never, ever give up or give in. We must come back here on July 5th more determined than ever before.”
The sit-in then ended after 25 hours, just around the time a 4-year-old girl identified as Shakeya Holmes was shot above the eye and killed in North Philadelphia, in the republic for which the flag stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.