A.J. McQueen, 23, was the guest of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.). McQueen was shot twice in a gang-related incident when he was 15. He says people in his neighborhood talk about guns and the need for more laws to control them, but he was heartened to hear the same talk from people who could make a difference.
“I feel relieved hearing it,” he said. “I just feel better knowing that something’s being done.” He said he talked earlier to a mother who had lost a son to gun violence, and he felt a kinship.
There were many others like him. Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) invited Natalie Hammond, a teacher who was shot in the foot, leg and hand during the mass shooting at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) invited Denise Reed, whose 14-year-old daughter, Starkesia, was killed by a bullet fired from an AK-47 on a Chicago street in 2006.
For some of those invited to the gallery, the scene was stunning. There were so many people like them, in the same pain.
“It hurts to see that there’s so many of us. That people can’t quite understand that this is an epidemic, like this isn’t normal,” said Kim Odom, whose son, Steven P. Odom, was shot and killed around the corner from their Boston home on Oct. 4, 2007. Odom attended the speech as a guest of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who Odom met during the senator’s recent election campaign.
“It’s not okay,” Odom said afterward. “It’s not okay that our children are being maimed, murdered, traumatized and terrorized. In a sense, we’ve become numb to this — that this is the way things are.”
On the other side of the gun debate, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.) invited rock musician and fervent conservative Ted Nugent. Nugent had been visited by the Secret Service last year after he told a National Rifle Association convention that he would probably be “dead or in jail” if Obama won reelection.
Other legislators used their guests to make different points.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) invited an illegal immigrant, Gabino Sanchez, fighting deportation in South Carolina. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) invited a couple from Little Neck, N.Y., whose adoption of a Russian child was halted when Russian President Vladmir Putin signed a law outlawing American adoptions of Russian children.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), for his part, invited two fourth-grade students from the District who are part of the Opportunity Scholarship program that Boehner has championed in the city.
Boehner also invited Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, as well as Ted Kremer, a 30-year-old with Down syndrome who served as a batboy for the Cincinnati Reds. Kremer had hoped to meet President Obama. Boehner aides said that didn’t happen, but Kremer said he got a presidential wave.
And Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) invited legendary crooner Tony Bennett, who is an advocate for gun control.
“It’s almost like going to the White House correspondents’ dinner,” where the formal event serves mainly as an excuse to compete for attention-grabbing guests, said Don Ritchie, the Senate’s in-house historian. He said the change was made possible by a shift in the home lives of the legislators themselves. “Usually, [the ticket] goes to a spouse. But now the spouses, for the most part, don’t come to Washington.”