When President Barack Obama spoke to a joint session of Congress in his State of the Union address, a record 101 women listened as elected members of Congress. Though he didn’t mention it until well into his speech, the issue of gun violence was omnipresent.
Green ribbons honoring the victims of December’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting were visible on the lapels of Democrats as well as Republicans. Some wore black or white ribbons in support of gun-control advocacy groups. More than “two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun audience,” according to the president, had been invited to hear him call for action to “protect our most precious resource — our children.”
Many believe that having so many women in Congress may change the tone and pass measures that will help reduce the gun violence that kills about 1,000 people every month in this country.
Several of the women have a personal connection to gun violence, including Reps. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), Jackie Spier (D-Calif.) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Freshman Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) doesn’t have a personal connection with violence, but has the distinction — or call it a privilege — of representing Newtown, the home of the elementary school where 20 kids and six of their teachers were killed by a gunman last December.
Then there is Gabrielle Giffords, the former Democratic representative from Arizona who was in the audience and whose career was shattered when she was shot in the head by a mentally ill gunman in a Tucson parking lot in 2011.
Each of these women has been battered, bruised and beaten by gun violence in one form or another. Their collective presence at Obama’s speech projected a visible stand against gun violence.
McCarthy’s credibility on gun issues is unquestioned. She was elected to Congress in 1996 after her husband was shot dead on the Long Island railroad in 1993. McCarthy has sponsored or co-sponsored legislation that would ban the sale of high-capacity magazines and assault weapons, prohibit the online sale of ammunition, and require background checks for firearms sales at gun shows.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, like McCarthy, has an unfortunate personal connection with gun violence. She became mayor of San Francisco in 1978 after a gunman evaded the metal detector at San Francisco’s City Hall — by crawling through a window — and killed Mayor George Moscone.
Feinstein was elected to the Senate in 1992. Two years later, she sponsored the now-expired federal assault weapons ban. She introduced a new Assault Weapons Ban in January that would ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) was shot during the Jonestown massacre in 1978 in Guyana, while traveling as an aide to Rep. Leo Ryan on a fact-finding mission. Ryan was assassinated in the attack. Speier is one of 12 vice chairs of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, which recently released its 15 policy principles designed “to reduce gun violence while respecting second amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.”
Esty, a freshman lawmaker from Cheshire, Conn., had only recently won her seat when she found herself trying to comfort the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. The site of those shootings, Newtown, lies in her Connecticut district, and she has become the victims’ voice in Congress. Esty has joined the congressional task force developing policies to prevent gun violence.
Finally, although Gabrielle Giffords can no longer can vote in Congress, the former Arizona congresswoman may still hold the most powerful voice on gun violence in the country. The nation was riveted when she haltingly told Congress last month that “too many children are dying from gun violence. Too many children.” Last month, Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, launched a new advocacy group, Americans for Responsible Solutions.
Obama didn’t make any bold promises Tuesday night about reducing gun violence. He left that job to Congress, saying that members could vote no if they wished, but they had to at least hold a vote on the many gun-control bills now before them.
Obama told Congress that the parents of the 15-year-old girl Hadiya Pendleton, who marched in his inaugural parade and was tragically shot and killed just over a week later in Chicago, deserve a vote. Obama said Gabby Giffords deserves a vote, and the families of Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, Oak Creek, Blacksburg, and “countless other communities ripped open by gun violence” all deserve a vote.
These votes can happen. And there are women in Congress who can help make them happen.
The men in Congress can and will help pass these measures. But with a record number of women in Congress, and with so many of them having such a personal connection to gun violence, 2013 may be the year Congress finally adopts meaningful measures to reduce gun violence.
Joann Weiner teaches economics at The George Washington University. She has previously written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter: @DCEcon.