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Gun-violence victims will attend Obama's speech to Congress

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats in Congress are bringing victims of gun violence to his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, providing faces and voices to the carnage that he wants to curb with new restrictions on firearms.

About two dozen victims, including a girl from Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were killed in a December 14 school massacre, will see divided lawmakers uncertain what, if any, new gun laws to pass.

And lawmakers will see victims who agree with Obama that action is needed now, including a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons and a limit on high-capacity ammunition clips, like those used in the shooting at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The move is part of a multi-faceted campaign by gun-control advocates to crank up public pressure on members of Congress to stand up to the gun-rights lobby, despite fears that it could cost some of them re-election.

"They should be worried about doing the right thing, not about getting re-elected," said John Aresta, a gun-violence victim who was invited by Democratic Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York to attend Obama's speech.

Aresta, the police chief of Malverne, New York, had a partner with the New York City Police Department shot dead while on duty in 1989, and an uncle killed in a 1993 mass shooting on a commuter train. McCarthy's husband was killed in the same train attack.

"When people are killed, their names appear in the paper and then they are basically forgotten," Aresta said. "We don't forget them."

With 310 million firearms in the hands of U.S. civilians and more than 11,000 gun-related homicides in 2010, the United States is one of the world's most heavily armed nations and one of the most violent in terms of gun-related deaths.

"Enough is enough. People should have stepped up years ago," said Jim Tyrell of Rhode Island, whose sister was killed in a 2004 armed robbery. Since then, Tyrell has held an annual fundraiser for the study of nonviolence.

Tyrell and others affected by gun violence will hold a news conference at the Capitol before Obama's speech.

"I understand gun owners have a right to own guns, but who needs to walk around with a semi-automatic?" Tyrell said.

The only gun-related proposal drawing bipartisan support is one requiring background checks for all gun buyers. Critics, including the National Rifle Association, reject tougher steps as violations of the U.S. Constitution's right to bear arms.

SHADOW OF NEWTOWN

No Republican has offered to bring a gun-violence victim to the speech, said Democratic Representative Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, who helped organize the outreach effort.

"This should be a bipartisan issue," Langevin said. "We should all be concerned about guns in the wrong hands."

First lady Michelle Obama will deliver a message of her own by bringing as her guests the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, the Chicago teenager slain by gunplay in a park near her high school just days after performing at the president's inauguration.

The victims will sit in the visitors' gallery of the House of Representatives, overlooking members of Congress as Obama delivers a speech that will spell out his priorities for the coming year, including tougher gun laws.

"It's important to have people there who have been touched by gun violence," Langevin said. "They will be able to see members, and members will be able to look at the gallery and know they are there."

Langevin is one of at least a half dozen or so members of Congress who are also gun violence victims. Some lost family members and a few, like Langevin, were nearly killed. At age 16, he was paralyzed when a bullet accidentally discharged from a police officer's gun struck him in the neck.

"What happened to me shows that despite what the NRA says, having more guns isn't the answer to keeping our communities and children safe," Langevin said.

Langevin's guest at Obama's speech is Tyrell.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi invited a fourth-grade student from Newtown after the youngster wrote her. The girl didn't attend Sandy Hook Elementary but has since become a gun control advocate.

"After the shooting in my town, I started an online petition asking for help from the president and Congress to change the gun laws," the youngster wrote.

"What everyone in Newtown wants is for you to ban semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines," she wrote.

Natalie Hammond, a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary who was shot in the attack, will also attend Obama's speech as a guest of her congresswoman, Democratic Representative Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut.

Langevin and McCarthy, along with three other House Democrats, urged colleagues to invite victims in the wake of the Newtown massacre and after Obama vowed to make gun control a top priority.

"It is our hope that their presence in the House Gallery will send a strong message that it is long past time to act," the five Democrats wrote.

(Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson, Paul Simao and Philip Barbara)

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