WASHINGTON – Several people whose lives have been shattered by gun violence will be watching from the packed House gallery as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union speech.
But not Bill Sherlach, whose wife, Mary, was killed in the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.
Washington officials fighting over gun control invited him to attend Obama’s speech tonight in the House chamber. Sherlach declined.
He said that rather than be the nationally televised face of tragedy, he prefers working within a group that wants the gun issue addressed as part of a comprehensive effort to reduce violence. He wants to work with Sandy Hook Promise, a group that deals with more than just gun control. Mary Sherlach was the Sandy Hook Elementary School psychologist.
Sherlach, who said he had other obligations the day of the speech, explained he also didn’t want to be part of the heated rift over gun control that politics and dueling news conferences seem to inflame.
“I think the political aspect pulls people to one extreme or the other extreme,” he said.
Rep. Jim Himes, Sherlach’s congressman in Connecticut, had invited him to the president’s address.
Victims of tragedy long have played major roles in the nation’s most dramatic public policy debates, and there are few more bitter, or expensive than this year’s legislative battle over gun control. Victims make riveting witnesses to wrenching problems and the consequences of doing nothing to prevent the nightmares they know.
The age of global multimedia sharing, however, opens them as never before to becoming pawns and targets in fights that can be more about the legacies and ambitions of others than their own lost loved ones.
Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of gun victims in a nation that saw nearly 8,600 gun violence deaths in 2011, according to the FBI, or of politicians looking for real people to bolster their positions on gun control, mental health and other issues. There still will be representatives from Newtown in the House gallery for Obama’s prime-time speech.
After a gunman shot his own mother at home and then 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook, Obama pledged to tighten gun laws. And then came a parade of the sorrowful and the defiant filing through the virtual public square.
At the White House, Obama met with Newtown families. At a public hearing in Connecticut, Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse, was killed at the school, questioned the need for any civilian to own semi-automatic, military-style weapons. “The Second Amendment shall not be infringed!” someone shouted back.
In Washington, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a shot to the head during a 2011 assassination attempt, told a Senate committee that Congress must revamp gun laws. Her husband, Mark Kelly, got into a terse discussion at the witness table with National Rifle Association’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre.
At the Super Bowl, the Sandy Hook Elementary School chorus gave a stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful” that had some players on the sidelines and fans in the stands in tears.
The State of the Union address will showcase the results of intense campaigns by the White House and members of Congress to bring victims of gun violence, including some Newtown families, to the Capitol.
Cleopatra and Nathaniel Pendleton, the parents of a Chicago teenager slain just days after performing during Obama’s inauguration, will sit with first lady Michelle Obama during the speech. Hadiya Pendleton, 15, was shot to death Jan. 29 in a park close to the Obama’s Chicago home. Police say a gunman hopped a fence and opened fire on a group of young people. She was a majorette with the King College Prep band.
Twenty-two House members are bringing people affected by gun violence, according to Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who spearheaded the effort. The guests include Natalie Hammond, Sandy Hook’s lead teacher, who was shot in the foot, leg and hand but managed to crawl to safety behind a door. She’ll be the guest of Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will have as her guest a fourth-grader who attends a different elementary school in Newtown, but recently wrote to her about gun control.
“To have them in the gallery during the speech is a strong reminder to Congress that the American people want action on these issues,” said Langevin, who has used a wheelchair since being paralyzed in a shooting accident as a teen.
Langevin was a 16-year-old Boy Scout cadet working with police in Warwick, R.I. He was in a locker room watching officers examine a gun they thought was unloaded, when the weapon accidentally fired. A bullet ricocheted off a metal locker and severed Langevin’s spinal cord.
Taking sides on the gun issue while coping with grief can be a stunning and disillusioning experience, say veterans of victim advocacy.
“Families are not prepared to go through the onslaught,” said John Walsh, host and executive producer of TV’s “America’s Most Wanted” show, who began his crime-busting crusade after the abduction and murder of his 6-year-old son, Adam, in 1981. Victims’ relatives, he said, can get frustrated when their activism doesn’t translate into swift action.
“They’re not prepared for all the shenanigans in Congress,” said Walsh. But, he added, some good could come from Sandy Hook. “There is a tiny window here before everybody forgets about it. This could be a great time for these parents to make a loud statement.”
In his speech, Obama is expected to urge support for his plan to ban assault weapons and require background checks for all gun buyers. Last month he released his package of proposals for curbing gun violence in response to the Newtown shootings and vowed to use the powers of his office to fight for the proposals.
Most of them face tough opposition from the NRA and its friends in Congress. Conservative accused Obama of using children as political props. When he announced his gun proposals at the White House, he was surrounded by some kids who had written him in support of further gun restrictions.
While no family wants to be exploited, many in Newtown want to have a role in seeing something come of the tragedy, said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.
Their testimony, she said, “puts a tangible human face on the issue.”
Jim Tyrell, a Warwick, R.I., bartender whose older sister, Debbie, was shot and killed nine years ago during a robbery at the convenience store she owned, said he’s attending Obama’s speech as Langevin’s guest.
“Somebody took her life with a gun, and here I am trying to save another person’s life by getting guns off the streets,” he said.
Tyrell said he’s not daunted by the prospect of public criticism. “If somebody criticizes me, that is their opinion. I am not looking to offend anybody else, I just want to tell them my story and what happened to our family.”