Rep. Scott Peters, Who Introduced Congress to Periscope During Sit-In, on How People Can Push for Gun Control

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Scott Peters photographed during an interview about gun violence on April 14, 2016.

Scott Peters, a 58-year-old second-term Democratic congressman who represents the area around San Diego, may be an unlikely candidate for online stardom. But his use of Periscope to broadcast parts of last week’s Congressional sit-in for a vote on gun-control legislation has put him -- and Periscope, as well as his continued demands for action on gun violence -- in the spotlight.

“We decided the right thing to do was to show America this important conversation,” says Peters, who was joined by other representatives who broadcast their own footage on Periscope and Facebook Live. “You could tell what a visceral connection we were making with America.”

Peters arrived on the House floor when he heard that Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader who now represents part of Georgia as a Democrat, had organized a sit-in to call for a vote on gun control in the wake of the shooting in Orlando that left 49 people dead. Because the protest prevented House business from proceeding as scheduled, the cameras and microphones that normally capture events for C-SPAN weren’t running. Peters was about to return to his office when an assistant there suggested he download Periscope instead. The world was watching -- online -- and Peters believes it could be the beginning of a process to push Congress to enact more thorough gun-control laws.

(For much more on the Orlando tragedy and Billboard’s open letter to Congress to stop gun violence, visit billboard.com/orlando.)

How did you decide to film the sit-in on Periscope?

We realized that the cameras and the microphones were turned off and I thought to myself, "What a waste of time -- we’re sitting on the floor of the House but no one is going to hear or see this." So I downloaded Periscope -- I had heard of it, but I hadn’t used it -- and I filmed for a little while. I walked off the floor to call my daughter, and after 10 minutes, I got back and saw all of these people asking what happened to the broadcast. So I started filming again. The Sergeant at Arms kept asking me to stop because it’s against the House rules, so I started sneaking it -- and every time I would post something, it would get a great response. I made a deal with myself that if the Speaker would turn on the cameras, I would turn off mine.

What made the frustration in Congress boil over into a sit-in?

There are two things we’re asking for. First, we’re looking to close the background-check loophole. If you go to Walmart to buy a gun, you have to have a background check to make sure you’re not a felon. Right now, if you buy a gun on the Internet or at a gun show, you don’t. We just want to apply the same rule everywhere. Second, if we have a no-fly list, people on that list shouldn’t be able to buy guns. These two concepts are supported by 80 percent of the American people. We get so frustrated that even after Sandy Hook and now Orlando we can’t get a vote on it. So people who are frustrated got to see that Democrats share their frustration.

Is this the beginning of a process that will result in a law?

We don’t know yet. What we discovered from social media is that people are really engaged in this issue -- they’re fed up with a Congress that doesn’t work, and they saw that there are a lot of people in Congress who share that frustration. It’s not just guns -- it’s immigration, it’s tax reform. We’re not doing the service to the American people that they deserve. Every week, I get on the plane from one of the nicest places in the world to go to Washington, D.C., and the thought of not getting anything done drives me crazy.

Wait a minute: Are you suggesting that Washington, D.C., isn’t as nice as San Diego?

It’s not. And you can have that on the record.

What can people in the music business do to push for more thorough gun-control laws?

What everyone should do, including music business folks, is demand that Congress legislate. When we're not doing it, call us out. The music industry has particular leverage -- you have a lot of prominent folks. Just encouraging young people to speak up would scare the pants off of people. If young people turned out to vote at the same rate as people in their 60s, our government wouldn’t just be talking about the cost of prescription drugs; we’d be talking more about the climate, about education.

What does that mean in practice? How can people get the attention of legislators?

People really underestimate the effect of communications -- letters, but also tweets and Facebook posts about legislators. You can guide your elected official to do the right thing. Legislators pay attention to their voters, as they should. Every mom out here in San Diego thinks it’s nuts not to do anything about this.

Do you think the changes you’re suggesting would be a significant step toward reducing gun violence?

Those two things would be really important. We know background checks save lives. We know of shootings where the guy was a felon. And we know that people agree on this. So let’s not fight about an assault weapons ban right now. Almost none of the mass shootings have been with assault weapons; the publicized ones have been. But most people get killed by handguns and a lot of them get killed by people who couldn’t pass a background check. That would be an important step.

If so many Republicans want to change this, why aren’t they voting for it? And do you think this could change?

I don’t know. I have great sympathy for [Republican Speaker of the House] Paul Ryan [who ordered television cameras turned off during the sit-in]. He cares about doing the right thing, but he’s in an impossible spot. If he works with Democrats, the Freedom Caucus will throw him out. If he doesn’t, he won’t get anything done. But for his party, the smart thing to do would be to put this on the floor. The public has a way of making change happen.