A historic sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives kicked off in the late morning on Wednesday and rolled on until 12:30 PM the next day. Throughout the 24-hour protest, congresspeople from across the country stood at the podium to share how gun violence has impacted people in their districts—but the passionate plea of Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell in the wee hours of the morning made those watching at home sit up and listen.
Civil Rights legend and Georgia Rep. John Lewis helped organize the sit-in on behalf of House democrats frustrated by the lack of action by Republicans on any gun control legislation, particularly after a gunman slaughtered 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando earlier this month. As the night wore on, suit-clad congressmen and women sprawled out on the House floor as, one by one, their colleagues faced the room—and the millions watching remotely via the live video app Periscope—to share their grief. But it was Dingell whose personal exposure to domestic violence made her colleagues break into roaring applause.
Standing before the podium, Dingell shared the following:
I lived in a house with a man that should not have access to a gun. 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.” And we don’t talk about it, we don’t want to say that it happens in all kinds of households, and we still live in a society where we will let a convicted felon who was stalking somebody, of domestic abuse, still own a gun.
Because of this traumatic early exposure to domestic and gun violence, Dingell has made fighting both of these societal threats two of her core issues as a congresswoman. But it wasn’t just what she said a few minutes past midnight, as people breathlessly witnessed this spectacle unfolding—it was how she said it. With a near cry in her voice, one could easily imagine Dingell as a young girl, cowering in a closet and praying for her life. It was almost as if that same scared girl was addressing one of the most powerful governing bodies in the world.
This passion moved survivors like Michelle Kinsey Bruns, a feminist activist and organizer who focuses on abortion clinic defense. Minutes after Dingell wrapped up her remarks, Bruns tweeted about her own experience with domestic violence.
"I am so grateful to Rep. Dingell for shedding a light on the role of guns in domestic abuse," Bruns told me in an email. "No woman should have to wonder whether her partner is going to leave her children motherless. No child should have to wonder whether it'd be better to be left alive or to be killed, too, if her mother is shot dead by her abuser."
Bruns added: "The more we talk about guns as an exacerbating factor in domestic abuse, the more we can get away from the myth of attacks in the home by strangers as a greater risk to women's lives than their own partners. When we face that reality is when we can begin to do something about it."
Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) is also determined to do something about this issue. She called Dingell’s story “very powerful” when I spoke to her on the phone Thursday morning, just a few hours after Dingell’s moving address. “Our organization is really about survivors speaking up. We recognize as a society that survivors are the ones who can tell us [what domestic violence is really like]. Having someone like Rep. Dingell tell her story helps to dispel the narrative that this only happens to certain people. And hearing from someone as high-profile as her is so important.”
The NCADV has actively worked with Dingell and other members of Congress to help draft and push through three different bills related to domestic violence, including H.R. 3130 (the Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act), which Dingell referenced in her remarks. The goal of the bill, according to Dingell’s website, is “to protect women who are victims of domestic violence and stalking by closing loopholes that allow abusers and stalkers access to guns.” The congresswoman has worked with Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota to try to get it passed—but right now, Glenn says, the bills are “just sitting.”
Perhaps that’s what motivated Dingell to take the floor, even when the congressman who introduced her claimed she wasn’t even sure she wanted to speak as part of the sit-in. She recalled telling Klobuchar, “It will never change,” in regard to the current gun laws (or lack thereof) that allow nearly anyone to purchase a gun. But then she said, “Today we showed that’s not what’s going to happen.”
As soon as Dingell took office early last year, she immediately pressured Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to veto a bill that would allow some domestic abusers to get their hands on firearms. While Dingell is the wife and successor of former representative John Dingell, who she called in her speech “a responsible gun owner,” she wasted no time during her first days in office last January making sure the bill was thrown out.
At the time, she wrote that the bill was “a formula for disaster that would endanger too many people in our communities. We must demonstrate zero tolerance for bullying or abuse; respect and implement processes that protect individual liberties, but use common sense to eliminate potential violence.”
But since then, the country has seen a slew of mass murders by gun, including the most recent massacre in Orlando. And every day, men, women, and children are killed by a gun that falls into the wrong hands.
“Anytime we talk about removing guns from abusers and limiting access to guns for abusers, I get hopeful,” Glenn said. “We need more people to step up and do something to protect future victims.”
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.