(MCT) — WASHINGTON — As Hadiya Pendleton’s parents sat next to the first lady and listened, President Barack Obama told the nation Tuesday that his gun proposals deserve a vote in Congress because of victims such as the slain Chicago teen.
Delivering his State of the Union address, Obama said that in the two months since the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., “more than 1,000 birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
“One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton,” the president said. “She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend.
“Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration,” he said. “A week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.”
Hadiya’s parents, Nathaniel Pendleton and Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, guests of first lady Michelle Obama, stood and applauded as the president demanded that Congress consider his gun measures, saying that the parents of Hadiya and other shooting victims “deserve a vote.”
More than 30 gun-violence survivors and loved ones were seated in the chamber during the speech. Many of them were part of a group that traveled to Washington this week to lobby for the president’s gun proposals.
Gun rights advocates have said the president’s gun agenda would unfairly affect law-abiding gun owners and that any government crackdown should target criminals who are violating existing laws.
At a hearing on gun violence a few hours before Obama’s speech, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked those in the audience who had been affected by gun violence to stand.
Dozens of people, about half of the crowd, rose in silence.
“Look about this room,” Durbin said. “Understand that the debate we have before us has affected so many lives.”
Whether they watched in Washington or at home in Chicago, the speech was particularly significant to parents who have lost children to violence. By singling out Hadiya, they said, the White House gave special attention to the violence in Chicago that claimed more than 500 lives last year.
LaWanda Sterling said she doesn’t usually watch the State of the Union address. But on Tuesday, she said, the president talked about the issue that changed her life — gun violence.
“I’m interested now because it hit home for me two years ago,” said Sterling, whose 16-year-old son Jeremiah was killed in 2010. “Now it seems like the nation is catching up with Chicago.”
But, she said, the president cannot do it alone.
“President Obama is in Washington and he’s trying to do everything he can to get the nation as a whole right. It puts the spotlight on Chicago and shows how crime and murder and these guns are running rampant in our communities,” she said. “But we have to start in our own neighborhoods. It has to begin with us.”
Siretha Woods volunteers at a group home on Tuesday nights, but she planned to take a break and turn on the television to hear the president speak.
“This is of particular interest to me because he’s dealing with the gun violence. Getting guns off the streets is very important to me,” said Woods, whose 10-year-old daughter, Siretha White, was shot and killed at her own surprise birthday party. “I was one of the first ones to experience having a kid at home and being gunned down. It’s really crazy and it’s still going on.”
White was shot in the head by a stray bullet in 2006 after a gunman, aiming at some men standing on the street, sprayed bullets through the window of a house where 30 children were gathered for a party.
After six years, Woods said she feels as if everyone has forgotten about her daughter. Though she is glad that the president addressed violence in his speech, she wanted to hear him talk about all of the children.
“It’s not just one parent involved,” she said. “I’m not trying to make it personal, but if my daughter could have made it to be 15, maybe she would have been at the inauguration too. But she was killed at 10. All of us are in this together.”
In Washington, relatives of slain victims held a Capitol Hill news conference and meetings with individual representatives and senators. Those meetings will continue Wednesday.
The flurry of activity in Washington — coordinated mainly by Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence — aimed to illustrate a more muscular gun control movement than the one that has come up short in past legislative battles.
“Politicians are beginning to understand that people that maybe they thought wouldn’t mobilize or be active on this issue are going to mobilize and are going to be active,” said Peter Read, whose 19-year-old daughter Mary was killed nearly six years ago in the Virginia Tech massacre. “And they realize they can’t ignore it anymore.”
In a quiet moment before the news conference, Read introduced himself to one of those new activists.
With both hands, Read clasped the hand of Nathaniel Pendleton. They didn’t say much, just held the handshake for an extended beat.
“Whether we’ve known each other for years ... or just met them, we have a common bond, common objectives because we’ve all been touched” by gun violence, Read said after they met. “You almost don’t have to exchange any words to understand each other.”
(Glanton reported from Chicago and Mason from Washington.)