Though President Obama will be the only one speaking during tonight's State of the Union address, others will be sending silent, yet powerful, messages from the gallery.
For decades, presidents and lawmakers have used their guests to the annual address as an attempt to frame looming debates and promote their politics. And this year, with President Obama expected to push early in his second term for tighter gun regulations, partisans on both sides of the aisle are making clear gun-related statements with their plus ones.
Perhaps most prominently, rock guitarist and gun advocate Ted Nugent will be in the audience as the guest of Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas.) Nugent, an NRA board member, has long been a vocal and controversial critic of the president. In 2007, he brandished a machine gun on stage during a concert while vilifying then-candidate Obama. Then at an NRA convention last year, Nugent warned that he would "either be dead or in jail by this time next year" if Obama won re-election. That comment led to a visit from the Secret Service, and resulted in The Nuge getting kicked off a scheduled concert at Fort Knox.
On the other side of the debate, some two dozen Democrats will bring victims of gun violence to the State of the Union, as part of an effort organized by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group headed by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Among those guests will be several people intimately connected to the Sandy Hook massacre, including Natalie Hammond, a teacher who was injured in the shooting, and two Newtown detectives who were among the first emergency responders to reach the school that day.
Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was critically wounded after being shot in the head during a campaign event in 2011 and who has since formed a super PAC aimed at curbing gun violence, will be in attendance as the guest of fellow Arizonans Sen. John McCain (R) and Rep. Ron Barber (D). Barber was also injured in that 2011 attack, and won Giffords' old House seat following her retirement last year.
President Obama is making his stance clear through his invitees as well. Sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama will be Lieutenant Brian Murphy, who was shot 15 times while responding to the Wisconsin Sikh Temple shooting last year, and the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl who was killed in a shooting in Chicago last month — mere days after performing at Obama's inauguration.
Politically, how will these guests play? Democrats clearly feel they have the optical advantage, with Nugent's wild-man image contrasted against the faces of grieving survivors.
"It's going to play terribly for them," Ladd Everitt, a spokesperson for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told Talking Points Memo.
"You're going to have a guy who recently threatened the life of the president opposite over 20 survivors from some of our nation's most gruesome episodes of gun violence," he added.
Rep. Stockman thinks otherwise, and is encouraging reporters to speak with Nugent before and after the address.
"I am excited to have a patriot like Ted Nugent joining me in the House Chamber to hear from President Obama," Stockman said in a press release. "After the address, I'm sure Ted will have plenty to say.”
Regardless, at least one thing seems clear: Most pundits have been saying for weeks that Obama will likely drop the olive branch of bipartisanship in his second term and push more forcefully for Democratic priorities. Based on tonight's guest list, that certainly seems to be the case with gun control.
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