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.
Americans for Responsible Solutions, the advocacy group the couple founded after the shooting, used the occasion of the speech to run a commercial — aired in five targeted media markets — calling on Congress to strengthen background checks. The commercial aired in Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia, California, Kentucky, Nevada, and Ohio. Those markets represent the home districts of the congressional leadership in both chambers.
Even as Obama spoke, gun violence prominently reared its head on the other side of the country, as an intensive, days-long manhunt for a former Los Angeles police officer suspected in several murders appeared to end with a deadly shootout near Big Bear Lake, Calif.
‘Do Something,’ Victim’s Mother Implores
Earlier in the day, several of the shooting survivors and family members who attended the speech appeared at an emotional press conference on Capitol Hill to call on Congress to act on the president’s proposals. The group, which included about a dozen Democratic lawmakers and representatives from gun control advocacy groups, faced reporters in the Gabriel Zimmerman Meeting Room of the Capitol Visitor Center, named after a congressional aide who died in the shooting that wounded Giffords and Barber.
“I’m appealing to the Congress. ... You guys signed up for the job. Do something,” said Cleopatra Pendleton, the mother of the Chicago shooting victim.
In interviews after the news conference, several House Democrats said House Republican leaders have taken too passive an approach on the president’s gun proposals. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, indicated in January that he would let the Senate take the lead, and GOP House leaders generally have declined to weigh in on specific Democratic-backed gun proposals since then.
“Regardless of whether the Senate acts first or not, this is a time for real leadership. I call upon the speaker and the Republican leadership to bring a bill to the floor,” said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who was himself the victim of an accidental shooting in 1980, when a stray bullet fired by a police officer severed his spinal cord and left him quadriplegic.
Langevin said he would prefer that Republicans work with Democrats on a “broad-based bill” that includes a ban on assault weapons and large magazines and a requirement for stronger background checks, but he said he would accept a piecemeal approach.
“If we can’t get a comprehensive bill,” he said, “at least give us an up-or-down vote on each of these bills individually.”
But after the speech, House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., continued to take a wait-and-see approach.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the victims of senseless acts of violence,” Goodlatte said. “However, good intentions do not necessarily make good laws, so as we investigate the causes and search for solutions, we must ensure that any proposed solutions will actually be meaningful in preventing the taking of innocent life and that they do not trample on the rights of law-abiding citizens to exercise their constitutionally-guaranteed rights.”
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., called it a “sad thing” that Republicans didn’t stand when Obama called for an up or down vote on guns. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said it was “a brilliant idea” to invite gunshot victims, saying, “It added an emotional element to have people there who have been directly affected by gun violence.”
“The president’s serious about this,” Schakowsky said. “The vice president spent nearly two hours at the Democratic retreat talking about one issue. The administration is fully engaged, and I think the American people are fully engaged now, and I think that there’s a growing consensus that something has to be done.”
Carolyn Phenicie and Cristina Marcos contributed to this story.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.