Politics

This Is What The Empty Seat At Obama’s State Of The Union Means

CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Mark Barden, a parent who lost his child, Daniel Barden, 7, in the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, testifies on assault weapon legislation during a Senate Executive Committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Monday, May 20, 2013.

For the past three and a half years, ever since her son Alex was killed in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, Caren Teves has left an empty seat at her family’s dining room table. The extra place setting is particularly hard to bear on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and every other holiday since her oldest son’s life was ended at just 24 years old, she said.

“Every Christmas it doesn’t get easier, it gets more difficult,” Teves told ThinkProgress. “Every year we set a place for him. During holidays, and birthdays, and celebrations, we always set a place for Alex.”

During the State of the Union on Tuesday night, President Obama will also leave a seat open in the First Lady’s box to remember victims of gun violence like Alex “who no longer have a voice,” the White House announced this week.

“There are thousands and thousands and thousands of empty seats at the holiday table every single year, and it’s just growing,” Teves said, noting that the United States loses roughly 90 people to gun violence each day.

Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son Daniel was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, also knows what it’s like to have a child missing.

“It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking gesture by the Obama administration to do this,” he told ThinkProgress. “Unfortunately, my family knows all about the empty seat at the table.”

And Lucy McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was shot and killed for playing loud music in 2012, said her life has been filled with empty seats.

“Every holiday there is an empty chair,” she told ThinkProgress. “Every birthday there’s an empty chair. There was an empty chair for Jordan at his high school graduation — the chair that he should have filled when his father and I accepted his diploma.”

All three parents said they are grateful that the president will be recognizing victims of gun violence during his last State of the Union address.

“It tells us that our voices are being heard,” Teves said. “The voices of those who no longer have a voice are being heard. Just the thought that the president is honoring more than 30,000 Americans who die from gun violence every year, that he’s showing such respect, and more importantly the actions that he’s taking, truly means a lot to us.”

Barden added that the empty seat will be symbolic of the sense of loss that so many Americans feel because of gun violence. “It’ll be tangible evidence of that,” he said.

In 2012, Teves invited her senator, Jeff Flake (R-AZ), to take her son Alex’s missing seat at their table and to hear her family’s story first hand. Sen. Flake did not respond, and Congress went on to block background check legislation the following year. Congress’ inaction was one of the reasons Obama cited when he announced his executive action on guns last week.

While the empty seat will be a symbolic gesture, Obama’s executive will enact concrete reforms — including narrowing who can sell guns without a license, expanding who must be subjected to background checks, and hiring more people to conduct background checks. Barden and McBath were in the White House to introduce Obama and stand behind him when he announced his executive action on guns last week.

“We’re finally being heard in Washington because Congress hasn’t heard anything besides themselves,” Teves said. “It’s shameful, so I’m so proud of our president who has taken the steps to get these actions in place to try to save lives.”

Other survivors and victims of gun violence have also praised Obama’s action:

While most members of Congress will be on the House floor Tuesday night and will see the empty seat in the First Lady’s box, one notable presidential contender will be missing. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) will hold a Second Amendment rally followed by a “State of the Union town hall meeting” in New Hampshire around the same time as the president’s address.