Democrats just used a famous tactic to get the Senate to vote on guns — and it has a fascinating history

Early Thursday, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut pushed to bar people on the government’s terrorism watch list from getting gun licenses.

Murphy, who was in office when 20 children and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School were massacred by a lone gunman in 2012, also proposed expanding background checks to people buying guns at gun shows and online.

He spoke for more than 15 hours before Republicans agreed to vote on two proposed gun-control measures.

Senate Democrats launched their fight for more gun control with renewed energy this week following last weekend’s shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, in which 49 people were killed and dozens more wounded.

The filibuster in the US Senate is a tactic used to delay or completely obstruct a measure from coming to a vote, or simply to make a political statement. The rules allow a senator to speak as long as they want, until three-fifths of senators invoke cloture, bringing the debate to a close. But the speaker must stay standing the entire time, avoid bathroom breaks, and consume only water, milk, or hard candies.

Some say Murphy’s speech doesn’t fit the true definition of a filibuster because it was designed to force a vote on a bill, not block it, but others say Democrats are using the tactic to delay voting on the appropriations bill that contains the gun-control measures.

Senators are allowed to bring allies to ask questions, giving them a break from talking – though they’re allowed to talk about whatever they want.

Here’s a look at some of the most memorable filibusters in US history.


Robert La Follette, 1917

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Wikimedia Commons

With just 26 hours left in the 64th Congress, Wisconsin Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette launched a filibuster to stop the Senate from passing legislation that would arm merchant ships against German submarine attacks, in an attempt to keep the US out of World War I.

When La Follette tried to begin his concluding remarks – after a number of other senators who agreed with him had spoken – the presiding officer only recognized those senators who had opposed the filibuster. La Follette erupted with rage and nearly hurled a brass spittoon at the officer.

The bill died, but war was declared a few weeks later. La Follette was one of only six senators to vote against it.


Huey Long, 1935

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Wikimedia Commons

Huey Long, the famous populist from Louisiana, filibustered to keep a bill that required senior employees in the National Recovery Administration to be confirmed.

The filibuster was an effort to keep Long’s political enemies in Louisiana from getting lucrative jobs.

Long’s filibuster failed and the provision in the bill was removed – but not before he spoke for 15 hours and 30 minutes. He began by reading and analyzing each section of the Constitution, then veered into Shakespeare plays and his own family recipes, including fried oysters and “potlikker,” a soup made from collard greens.


Strom Thurmond, 1957

Strom Thurmond, a senator from South Carolina, takes the cake for longest filibuster in recorded history, at 24 hours and 18 minutes. He was trying to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957 from passing.

Thurmond was prepared: He took a steam bath beforehand to rid his body of excess liquid, brought throat lozenges to the Senate floor, and dashed into a coatroom at one point to scarf down a sandwich while another senator asked a question. A staffer was even on hand with a bucket in case he had a bathroom emergency. He read from historical documents to pass the time.

Thurmond wasn’t able to persuade any senators to change their vote, and the act eventually passed. California Sen. William Knowland later deemed Thurmond’s speech “cruel and unusual punishment.”


Alfonse D’Amato, 1986 and 1992

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Former New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato attends the 25th Annual Sports Emmy Awards, April 19, 2004, in New York City.
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Peter Kramer/Getty Images

New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato is famous for pulling off two of the longest filibusters in US history.

In 1986, he spoke for 23 hours and 20 minutes, attempting to block a defense bill that would have defunded a jet-trainer program in upstate New York. After he had explained his opposition, he turned to reading the Washington, DC, phone book out loud. D’Amato was successful and the bill was blocked.

Six years later, he spent 15 hours and 14 minutes protesting another bill that would have outsourced over 900 typewriter-manufacturing jobs in an upstate New York community to Mexico, a speech that included a performance of “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way).” This time, the filibuster failed.


Bernie Sanders, 2010

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BernieSanders2016 via Youtube

Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders launched a filibuster in 2010 against a tax-cut deal negotiated by Obama and Republican leaders.

He spoke for 8 hours and 37 minutes, but his filibuster wasn’t a true filibuster because a vote was scheduled for a few days later, regardless. The deal was eventually passed.

His speech included letters from constituents who had been hit hard by the Great Recession. His remarks were later turned into a book: “The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed and the Decline of Our Middle Class.”


Rand Paul, 2013

In March 2013, Kentucky senator and former Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul launched a filibuster to delay voting on the nomination of John Brennan as director of the CIA.

Paul, who has protested the Obama administration’s use of drones to target suspected terrorists overseas, spoke for 12 hours and 52 minutes. Brennan was eventually confirmed.

A little over two years later, Paul gave another speech that lasted nearly 11 hours to protest the Patriot Act and the government’s surveillance of American phone records.


Ted Cruz, 2013

In a September 2013 Senate speech that lasted 21 hours and 18 minutes, Texas senator and former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz defended a federal-budget bill that included a provision to defund the Affordable Care Act.

The Senate ultimately blocked the bill, which had already been approved by the House of Representatives, resulting in a 16-day government shutdown.

Cruz’s filibuster wasn’t truly a filibuster, since a vote had already been scheduled. But he spent his speech outlining his issues with Obamacare and sharing stories from people who had been negatively affected by the legislation. He even read bedtime stories to his two daughters, who were at home watching him on C-SPAN.