When President Obama’s State of the Union Address turns to the topic of gun violence, many people in the House chamber may look aloft to catch the reaction of people sitting in the rafters with personal ties to the issue.
Lawmakers are each granted one ticket to give to an invited guest for the speech, and this year congressional Democrats have invited at least 35 people with connections to gun violence. Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), himself a quadriplegic who was paralyzed in a gun accident at age 16, orchestrated the effort with the assistance of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns – two interest groups leading the lobbying charge on Capitol Hill – and groups organized since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Langevin’s staff has compiled brief biographies of the invited guests and the lawmaker who invited them but they are all either survivors of mass shootings or the family members of people killed by guns.
Among them are Cleopatra Pendleton, the mother of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old Chicago teen killed on Chicago’s South Side just days after marching in President Obama’s inauguration parade. Pendleton is attending as a guest of Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.). Peter Read, of Annandale, whose daughter, Mary Read, was killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, plans to attend as a guest of Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.).
Chicago resident Denise Reed is attending the speech as a guest of Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). In 2006, Reed’s 14-year-old daughter, Starkesia, was struck and killed by a bullet fired from an AK-47 on a Chicago street – an incident similar to the recent shooting death of Pendleton.
Attending the speech Tuesday is “an honor,” Reed said, but “to be here on this topic is somewhat bittersweet.”
After her daughter’s death, Reed founded Purpose Over Pain, an organization working to prevent gun violence. She has lobbied in recent years for gun legislation, but is concerned that the nation is becoming immune to the effects of mass shootings.
“We hear about 12 or 15 people killed and we don’t think much about it,” Reed said. “But these are children, these are parents, they’re not gang bangers, they’re positive children who are in school.”
Throughout the day, invited guests of lawmakers visited the offices of more skeptical lawmakers, including Josh Stepakoff, 20, who was just 6 years old when he was shot at a Jewish community center near Los Angeles in 1999.
During his recovery from gunshot wounds, Stepakoff received a care package from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that included Senate-issued pens and a personalized balloon – gifts he’s kept ever since. He’s now a sophomore psychology student at California State University Northridge, but said he skipped class and flew to Washington Monday night to attend Tuesday’s speech as a guest of Feinstein.
“I thought this was a little more important and a little better opportunity than to learn about biology,” he said.
Around midday, Stepakoff met briefly with Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) just off the Senate floor. A joint meeting with California’s two senators, however brief, is rarely granted to residents of the nation’s largest state.
The presence of so many victims of gun violence “adds a human face” to the ongoing debate, Feinstein said. “If gun victims respond and stand up and do these things, they become an Army” that can counter the arguments of groups like the National Rifle Association, she said.
Stepakoff later visited the office of Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and said that his aides were “very receptive and he is willing and working towards safer gun laws. We spoke in depth about background checks and the assault weapons. What he will vote for I do not know.”