J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, for a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence.
President Barack Obama is promising to focus his State of the Union address primarily on the state of the economy – but victims of gun violence are taking advantage of the high-profile event to try to shine a spotlight on their cause.
Among the happenings in Washington this week for activists: TV ads, lobbying, a fundraiser, filming for new TV spots, a White House visit and a Capitol Hill press conference.
And then there’s the speech itself, where victims of gun violence – including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the mother of slain Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton, and a little girl from Newtown, Conn. – will watch the president’s address from inside the House chamber.
The goal: Maintain public pressure, sparked by the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, for Congress to write new gun laws.
“When the president talks about guns, he’s going to have enormous support in the gallery and in the country. Ultimately we think he’ll have it in the Congress too,” said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group led by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Obama advisers say the economic portion of the annual presidential address will focus on strengthening the middle class, book-ending his inaugural address last month.
Obama didn’t explicitly advocate for gun control in that speech -- though he did make clear his intention to prioritize such efforts in his second term after largely ignoring the issue during his first four years in office. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have launched an intense effort to highlight the need for measures to prevent gun violence in the wake of the Newtown shootings and have tried to build a coalition in support of their efforts.
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“Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm,” Obama said in the inaugural address last month.
The president plans to visit his home city of Chicago on Friday, where aides say he’ll highlight the need to combat gun violence in what has become the murder capital of the nation, with the vast majority of killings related to gang violence.
And sitting with first lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday night will be Cleopatra Pendleton, the mother of the Chicago teen who was shot and killed just weeks after performing with classmates at the presidential inauguration.
Other victims will accompany members of Congress after Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island – himself paralyzed in a gun accident – pushed his colleagues to offer up their hard-to-come-by tickets. The girl from Newtown, whose name hasn't been released, will attend with her mother as a guest of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
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Giffords, shot while meeting with constituents in Tucson in 2011, and her husband, Mark Kelly, will attend the speech as guests of Rep. Ron Barber, who replaced her in the House, and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
People who watch the speech on a cable network will see Giffords on their TV sets before the speech begins. Her PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions, is spending six figures to run an ad featuring the former congresswoman insisting that “Congress must act” to reduce gun violence. It will air right before and again after the president’s address.
Uphill battle in Congress
Dozens of gun violence victims will stay in Washington on Wednesday, when they'll lobby their own members of Congress to back new gun control laws. And they’ll also be cutting ads for the Mayors Against Illegal Guns group. Those spots, largely bankrolled by Bloomberg's vast personal fortune, will then run in key congressional districts.
The New York mayor has already spent nearly $1 million to attack former Rep. Debbie Halvorson for her “A” rating from the National Rifle Association; Halvorson is locked in a Democratic primary for former Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson’s vacant seat.
Giffords and her husband are also raising money for their PAC this week, holding a breakfast fundraiser at Washington lobbyist Heather Podesta’s office on Wednesday morning with tickets that run from $1,000 to $10,000 apiece. A Tuesday night fundraiser at a Capitol Hill restaurant is $100 per person. Their group claims to have already raised $1.5 million, and Bloomberg has made a six-figure donation.
Along with Giffords’ public presence, Bloomberg’s deep pockets and support of law enforcement organizations and other groups from around the country, Obama is poised to mount the largest effort to pan federal gun control measures in years – and opinion polls suggest Americans believe gun laws should be more strict. But the president’s advisers and allies privately acknowledge they still face long odds.
Most congressional Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, have either remained silent on the matter or expressed outright opposition to stricter gun regulations. Some Democrats have also expressed uneasiness with some of the president’s gun control proposals.
Quickly becoming the highest priority: passing a bill that would require universal background checks for gun purchases. Under current law, people can buy guns from private sellers without getting a background check.
The NRA is opposed to that measure. But a bipartisan group of senators, including Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mark Kirk of Illinois, have been working on a bill that would require those checks.
Bloomberg’s group also supports a ban on assault weapons and seeks to limit the number of ammunition rounds in a magazine, but it’s widely acknowledged that such measures, especially a ban, face an uphill battle in the Senate.
“I do not support an assault weapon ban because the definition of assault weapon is still hard to come by,” the NRA-backed West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin said Monday on MSNBC. “I think there’s a much more effective approach we can take.”
Manchin is working with Republicans on background check legislation.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to hold hearings on a potential package of new gun laws later this month.
At least one member of Congress will be trying to show off pro-gun bona fides. First-term Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, who’s already said he favors impeaching Obama over his gun control agenda, has invited rocker and gun enthusiast Ted Nugent as his guest on Tuesday night.
Nugent made waves during the presidential election campaign when he announced that if Obama were re-elected, “I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.”
Nugent did the interview in April 2012. He met with the Secret Service shortly after making the comments.
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