Much of the story at Tuesday night's State of the Union speech will be about Connecticut, from the Newtown massacre to Manchester, where bullets killed eight employees at Hartford Distributors in 2010, to Bridgeport, where a 3-year-old girl was shot last summer.
At least a dozen Connecticut residents with connections to those shootings – family members of victims, a survivor, or police who responded – will be seated in the House gallery as guests of members of Congress or President Barack Obama.
Among them will be Newtown teacher Natalie Hammond, who was shot but survived Dec. 14 and will be making her first public appearance as guest of her congresswoman, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District. Ross Hollander, president of the liquor distributorship in Manchester, will attend as the guest of Rep. John Larson, D-1st District. Curtrina Murphy of Bridgeport, whose daughter has recovered from last year's shooting, will be the guest of Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District.
They've been invited as part of an effort led by congressional Democrats to put human faces on the issue of gun violence – and, including invitees from throughout the country, there should be more than two dozen faces.
They'll be watching from the audience as Obama spends part of the speech exhorting Congress to approve federal legislation that includes a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Their faces will be "a reminder to even the most hardened friends of the gun lobby that your community may be next if we don't make changes," Sen. Chris Murphy said in a conference call Monday with reporters along with fellow Connecticut Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Murphy added: "I think it's very hard for the defenders of the status quo to look these families and first-responders in the eye and tell them that we can do nothing."
Proponents of gun control want to seize a moment of public outrage that's still fresh two months after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Obama proposed sweeping changes in the nation's gun laws a month after Adam Lanza, 20, went on a shooting rampage with a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and magazines holding 30 bullets apiece.
Semiautomatic rifles, and magazines holding more than 10 bullets, would be banned under the president's proposals. Obama also proposed universal background checks for all gun purchases as well as mental health reforms intended to provide early identification and treatment of disturbed individuals prone to violence.
In addition to trying to sway gun control opponents, the faces in the gallery may steel Obama's resolve, Blumenthal said Monday during the conference call.
"I think the president, looking out at the gallery, knowing that victims are there, has to be moved to in effect sound the charge" on gun reforms, Blumenthal said. "There's talk about … retreating from the assault weapon ban and the high capacity magazine proposal and settling only for … maybe a modified diluted version" of universal background checks.
The idea of gathering gun victims and their families for Tuesday's speech originated with Rep. Jim Langevin, a seven-term Democrat from Rhode Island. Langevin became a quadriplegic at age 16. He was a junior police cadet and a gun accident in the department's locker room sent a bullet through his neck, severing his spinal cord.
At least 24 members of the House and a half dozen senators have signed on. Langevin said he believes it is the first time so many guests related to a specific cause were invited to attend the State of the Union speech.
Langevin's guest will be Jim Tyrell, whose sister was shot and killed during a robbery at a store.
Others in the audience will include:
•Chris McDonnell, the father of 6-year-old Grace McDonnell, a first-grader killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, as the guest of Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Calif. His wife, Lynn McDonnell, will attend as the guest of Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla.
•Carlos Soto, brother of slain Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher Victoria Soto, as guest of Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District.
•A fourth grade girl from Newtown and her mother, invited by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after the girl wrote her a letter asking that Congress ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
•Newtown police detectives Dan McAnaspie and Jason Frank, as guests of Murphy.
•Two unidentified family members of Newtown massacre victims also are expected to attend, Washington sources said – one at the invitation of Obama, and the other as the guest of Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.
•Newtown First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra, as the guest of Blumenthal, who called her "an inspiration to the nation" because of "her leadership, her strength and her courage."
"It's an opportunity for me to continue to inform and educate those in our federal government about the impact this has had on our community and our need for support," Llodra said. "What happens always with tragedies and really worldwide events is that one thing knocks the next thing off the front pages and then people forget."
Meanwhile, Curtrina Murphy talked Monday of the harrowing day when her daughter was shot in Bridgeport. She said she was crossing a street with the 3-year-old last April when they saw two men running by. Suddenly, "this car just stopped and opened fire,'' Murphy recalled.
Her daughter was shot in the left buttock. She survived but the bullet remains, as do the emotional scars of the chilling encounter. "She's still frightened at times,'' Murphy said of the girl, now 4. A car backfiring, fireworks exploding, even a pot falling on the kitchen floor are enough to trigger her fears, Murphy said.
"It's a chance for me to talk to the country about why we need to change the laws to reduce gun violence and have stronger protections so what happened to my daughter won't happen to any other little girl,'' Murphy said. "I hope by going there I can bring attention to the gun violence effecting youth in Bridgeport."
Courant staff writers Matthew Sturdevant and Jenny Wilson contributed to this story.