Washington — Before a joint session of Congress, before a television audience of millions of Americans and before dozens of individuals whose loved ones had been victims of gun violence, President Obama Tuesday night declared that “the families of Newtown deserve a vote” on gun legislation, as do other American communities “ripped open by gun violence.”
It was the line of the night, of the president’s State of the Union address, the line that provoked the strongest reaction, as hundreds in the chamber rose to their feet and looked up at the gun violence victims in the galleries, Democrats crying out, “Vote! Vote! Vote!”
Tuesday was overall a night of familiar themes, however, as the president addressed many of the initiatives he has been pushing, urging Congress to pass new ones, including gun control measures.
As he did in his re-election campaign, Obama spoke of the need to help the middle class.
“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class,” he said.
He raised old themes: The need to promote manufacturing and clean energy and to reform the tax code.
Obama also urged members of the joint session of Congress to avoid automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, by coming up with alternatives before a March 1 deadline.
“These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness,” the president said.
Obama also asked lawmakers to avoid the government shutdown that would occur if Congress fails to approve a budget by March 31.
“Let’s set party interests aside and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future,” he said.
Many in the audience — which included members of the House, Senate, the Supreme Court and Cabinet — wore green ribbons bearing little white flowers, replicating the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 children and six teachers were killed by a gunman Dec. 14.
Obama’s new initiatives included a partnership with the states to expand preschool classes, a “Fix it First” program to hire people to repair the nation’s roads and bridges and an increase in the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.
“The president’s focus on jobs and the economy and an emphasis on infrastructure and manufacturing is important to Connecticut,” said Rep. John Larson, D-1st District.
Obama also called for comprehensive immigration reform and climate change legislation “like the one (Arizona Senator) John McCain and (former Connecticut Senator) Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.”
“We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen is just a freak coincidence,” the president said. “Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.”
Obama also urged a reluctantCongress to approve “common-sense” gun control measures.
“Of course, what I’ve said tonight matters little if we don’t come together to protect our most precious resources — our children,” the president said. “It’s has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time it’s different.”
Obama called for an expansion of FBI background checks before someone can buy a gun and new laws to prevent “straw purchases,” or the purchase of guns for resale to criminals.
The president also said, “Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because they are being outgunned.”
Obama’s plea was directed to many in the audience, in addition to families watching the State of the Union at home.
First Lady Michelle Obama’s guests included Kaitlin Roig of Greenwich, a first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Also in the First Lady’s box was Cleopatra and Nathaniel Pendleton, whose daughter Hadiya was shot and killed in Chicago days after she marched in Obama’s inaugural parade.
“She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss,” Obama said of Hadiya Pendleton. “She was a majorette.”
Also sitting with Michelle Obama was Brian Murphy, the first police officer to arrive at the scene of the Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wis., last year.
And crowding the gallery were victims of gun violence from across the nation who had been invited to the address by Democratic members of Congress.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited a 4th grader from Newtown and her mother. The little girl had started an online petition promoting gun control and wrote to members of Congress lobbying for new restrictions. The names of Pelosi’s guests were not disclosed for their protection.
“It got a lot of support from all over America, but then I had to take it down because the police were worried about my safety,” the girl said of her petition in her letter to lawmakers.
The child lobbied members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday, bringing them letters and pieces of artwork from Newtown children and others across the nation who wrote letters of support to Sandy Hook victims. The Newtown 4th grader also gave the senators green-and-white hand-knitted scarves.
The Judiciary Committee plans to introduce gun control legislation before the end of the month.
The little girl also spoke to House members late Tuesday afternoon.
“I told them we needed change,” she told the Connecticut Mirror.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd, invited 15-year-old Carlos Soto, brother of slain Sandy Hook teacher Victoria Soto.
“Vicki hid some of her class in a closet and was murdered trying to protect the others,” DeLauro said. “We owe it to the Soto family … to take assault weapons off the street.”
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, the freshman 5th Congressional District Democrat who represents Newtown in the House, had asked Sandy Hook teacher Natalie Hammond, who was wounded during the mass shooting at her school.
Lynn and Chris McDonnell, parents of slain Sandy Hook Elementary School student Grace McDonnell, were also among the guests in the gallery.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., invited Newtown Selectman Patricia Llodra to Tuesday night’s speech, and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., asked detectives Daniel McAnaspie and Jason Frank, both of Newtown’s police department.
“I think it’s very important to confront obstructionists and supporters of the gun lobby with reality,” Murphy said.
Larson invited Ross Hollander, the president of Hartford Distributors in Manchester, site, in 2010, of one of the deadliest mass shootings in state history.
The guest of Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, was Curtrina Murphy of Bridgeport, whose 3-year-old child was hit by crossfire as a result of gang violence. The little girl recovered from her wounds.
“I believe my voice needs to be heard about gun violence so what happened to my child won’t happen again,” Curtrina Murphy said
Blumenthal said he hopes the presence of so many Newtown residents and shooting victims at the president’s speech will toughen the spine of lawmakers who are wavering on gun control.
“To be blunt, there is talk of backing off the assault weapons ban and high-capacity magazine ban,” Blumenthal said.
Bob Welch, the National Rifle Association’s director in Wisconsin, was quoted in news reports Tuesday as predicting that anger over the Newtown massacre would dissipate.
“We have a strong agenda coming up for next year, but of course a lot of that’s going to be delayed as the ‘Connecticut effect’ has to go through the process,” Welch told NRA members at a yearly meeting.
Blumenthal said the Newtown residents, and other gun violence victims, at the State of the Union speech will prove Welch wrong.
“These families show that the Connecticut effect will be lasting, enduring and powerful,” the senator said.
Related: Transcript of President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union