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The human toll of gun violence will be front and center at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords joining more than two dozen shooting victims, their family members, first responders and others who will attend the speech as guests of Democratic lawmakers.
But some gun rights advocates aren’t pleased with the guest list. Gun Owners of America accused congressional Democrats of playing politics and called on Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to counter Obama’s legislative proposals on guns when he delivers the Republican response to the speech.
“We think it’s disgusting to use tragedy as a prop,” said Mike Hammond, the group’s legal counsel.
At least one Republican is bringing a well-known gun rights supporter to the speech as his guest. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, invited rock musician and outspoken gun rights advocate Ted Nugent. Stockman also intends to “fact check” Obama in real time on Twitter — including on the issue of guns — during the president’s speech, spokesman Donny Ferguson said.
The Democrats’ coordinated effort is intended “to keep the momentum up on addressing gun laws by sending a powerful message to lawmakers when the nation is focused on the State of the Union address,” said Jonathon Dworkin, a spokesman for Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who spearheaded the initiative in the House.
Giffords, the former Arizona Democrat who was shot in the head during a meeting with constituents in Tucson two years ago, will attend the speech as the guest of her former aide, Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., who was wounded in the same attack. Giffords’ husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, also is expected to attend, according to a statement from their new gun control advocacy group, Americans for Responsible Solutions.
The couple has emerged as leading advocates for tougher gun laws after the Dec. 14 shooting of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
At least 23 other House Democrats and at least four Senate Democrats will bring other guests who have been personally affected by gun violence, according to Langevin’s office and Senate press releases. The list includes several victims, family members and public officials affected by the shooting in Newtown, which has reignited the national debate over firearms.
Reps. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., and Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Calif., will bring Lynn and Christopher McDonnell, the parents of 7-year-old Grace McDonnell, who was killed in the shooting. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., will bring Carlos Soto Jr., the younger brother of Victoria Soto, a Sandy Hook teacher who died. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., will bring Natalie Hammond, the lead teacher at Sandy Hook who was shot in the foot, leg and hand. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will bring an as-yet unidentified Newtown fourth-grader and her mother.
Connecticut Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Christopher S. Murphy will bring public officials from Newtown. Blumenthal will bring Newtown First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra, while Murphy will bring two Newtown detectives, Dan McAnaspie and Jason Frank, who were among the first to arrive at the scene of the massacre.
During a conference call with reporters Monday, Blumenthal and Murphy said they hope the presence of so many guests with personal experiences of gun violence would put a human face on the problem and provide momentum to Obama as he calls for tough new limits on guns and ammunition and background checks on all gun sales.
“I think it’s very hard for the defenders of the status quo to look these families and first responders in the eye and tell them that we can do nothing,” Murphy said.
Among the Democratic lawmakers who are participating in the effort are those who have had direct experiences with gun violence themselves. Langevin was the victim of an accidental shooting as a 16-year-old in 1980, when a police officer’s stray bullet severed his spinal cord and left him quadriplegic. He is the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., has been one of Congress’ most outspoken gun control advocates since a gunman shot and killed her husband and seriously wounded her son on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993.
Members of Congress each are allowed one guest to the State of the Union, although leaders receive additional tickets.
Kristin A. Goss, a public policy professor at Duke University and the author of a book on the history of the gun control movement in the United States, said survivors and their family members have become an increasingly powerful force in the national gun debate.
“These family members and survivors have some moral authority and are putting a face to this at a level that wasn’t present 15 years ago,” Goss said.
Nevertheless, gun rights advocates want congressional Republicans — who have generally kept a low profile on the gun issue since the Newtown massacre— to make a forceful counterargument against Democrats, rather than lying low.
They view the State of the Union, which traditionally kicks off the policy debate over a president’s initiatives, as the perfect opportunity to draw contrasts, beginning with Rubio’s response.
“For him to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room would probably be a mistake,” Hammond said.