Congressional leaders must honor the memory of thousands of victims of gun violence by bringing up for a vote legislative proposals to curb such attacks, President Barack Obama declared during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, which was marked by the presence of dozens of shooting victims and family members seated in the House visitor galleries.
Obama largely reiterated many of the policy steps he first called for in January, a month after a gunman murdered 20 school children, six educators and his own mother in Newtown, Conn. The president urged lawmakers to strengthen criminal background checks for gun purchases, crack down on gun trafficking and reinstate a ban on high-powered “assault weapons” and ammunition magazines containing more than 10 rounds.
But far more than in his initial policy speech on gun control on Jan. 16 and in his inaugural address on Jan. 21, Obama used the platform provided by the State of the Union — and the presence in the House chamber of more than two dozen shooting survivors and family members from Newtown and other recent shootings — to push the debate forward and demand votes on those proposals.
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” he told the assembled lawmakers, many of whom wore green ribbons on their lapels to honor those lost to gun violence. “If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
Obama acknowledged the ideological sparring that has almost always bogged down gun control debates in Congress, which has not passed major legislation to limit guns and ammunition since 1994, when it approved the original federal ban on assault weapons and large ammunition magazines. But he said the raw emotion surrounding the attack in Connecticut should compel lawmakers to act.
“I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence,” he said. “But this time is different.”
Ticking off a list of recent mass shootings, Obama made an emotional appeal — saved for the final moments of his speech — to nudge congressional leaders into action.
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence — they deserve a simple vote,” Obama said.
Among the family members of gun violence casualties who attended the speech were the parents of a 7-year-old girl, Grace McDonnell, and the younger brother of a 27-year-old teacher, Victoria Soto, both of whom were shot and killed in the Newtown rampage.
The parents of Hadiya Pendleton — a 15-year-old girl shot to death in a Chicago park eight days after she marched in Obama’s inaugural parade in Washington — attended the speech as the guests of first lady Michelle Obama.
Giffords, a former House Democrat from Arizona who was shot in the head at close range during a constituent meeting in Tucson in 2011, also attended as the guest of Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., who was shot twice in the same attack while serving as her aide. Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who also attended the speech, have emerged as leading advocates of more restrictive gun laws in the aftermath of Newtown.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.