Sandy Hook families on Air Force One: why it matters

In an unusual move, 11 family members of Sandy Hook victims will fly with President Obama back to Washington on Air Force One so they can lobby Congress on gun control.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Obama (c.) arrives at Bradley Air National Guard Base in Hartford, Conn., Monday. Obama is in Connecticut to deliver remarks on measures to reduce gun violence, at the University of Hartford.

President Obama is pulling out all the stops this week on gun legislation, amid news of a fresh effort at compromise to expand background checks for gun buyers.

Mr. Obama delivers a speech late Monday afternoon on gun violence in Hartford, Conn., about an hour from the scene of last December’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Vice President Joe Biden will hold a gun-related event at the White House on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, first lady Michelle Obama travels to Chicago for another gun event.  

But most unusual, perhaps, is the fact that 11 family members of Sandy Hook victims will accompany the president on Air Force One back to Washington after his speech at the University of Hartford. The family members will head to Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress on gun legislation.

At his daily briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney portrayed the Air Force One news as a matter of logistics.

“These are family members who are planning to be in Washington to speak with Congress about the importance of taking action to reduce gun violence,” Mr. Carney said, “and in order to make sure they were able to attend the event in Connecticut and still be in Washington when they needed to be, we invited those family members to fly back with the president.”

Obama frequently surrounds himself with stakeholders – be they middle-class taxpayers, law enforcement, or supporters of health-care reform – when making public remarks. But having them hitch a ride on Air Force One to get them to D.C. for a lobbying push is rare. The move no doubt reflects the depth of Obama’s emotion on gun violence, and on the Sandy Hook massacre in particular, in which 20 first-graders were murdered by a lone gunman. The day of the massacre, the president brushed away tears and could barely speak when he addressed the tragedy in public for the first time.

Prospects for new gun-related measures had grown increasingly dim in recent weeks, amid a threatened filibuster that now includes 13 Republican senators. But on Sunday, a new bipartisan effort on background checks emerged involving Sens.  Patrick Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia. According to The Washington Post, the two men are working out a compromise that would require background checks for all gun purchases except sales between close family members and some hunters.

Polls show sky-high support for “universal background checks” – still close to 90 percent, four months after Sandy Hook. But Democrats have been stymied in their effort to round up the 60 votes needed to halt a filibuster in the Senate.

On Monday, as the Senate reconvened after a two-week recess, majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada made an emotional plea to allow votes about measures under discussion, including background checks and school-safety funds.  

“There are strong feelings and deep disagreements about some of these measures, but every one of these measures deserves a vote, a yes or no. No hiding, no running from an issue that has captivated America,” Senator Reid said.

The emotional buildup to this week’s focus on guns began Sunday night, as CBS’s “60 Minutes” featured the families of seven Sandy Hook victims. They were all members of the group Sandy Hook Promise, which successfully lobbied the Connecticut legislature to pass what advocates call the strictest gun control legislation in the nation. The law adds more than 100 guns to the state’s assault weapons ban, bars the purchase or sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines, and requires background checks for all gun buyers.

On “60 Minutes,” family members spoke of their lobbying effort, including why they showed lawmakers pictures of the children who had died.

“They need to not just look us in the eyes, but look at our children, and the lost ones and … and see those faces, see what’s gone, and remember this isn’t just about political parties, this isn’t just about careers,” said Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son Dylan was slain. “This is about people.”

Ms. Hockley will introduce Obama at Monday’s event at the University of Hartford.

But not all parents of Sandy Hook victims are with the president on gun control. Last week, at a National Rifle Association event unveiling a task force proposal on school safety recommendations – including training school personnel to carry weapons at school – a victim’s father praised the NRA effort.

"I wanted to take a minute and applaud ... the NRA for coming up and spending the time and resources on putting a program like this together," said Mark Mattioli, whose 6-year-old son, James, was killed in the December shooting. "We send our children off to school. There are certain expectations and obviously in Sandy Hook, those expectations were not met."

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