published Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen pressing gun control at Obama's speech


by Chris Carroll
President Barack Obama gestures while giving his State of the Union address on Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama gestures while giving his State of the Union address on Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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President Barack Obama will deliver his fifth State of the Union address tonight at 9.

All broadcast and most cable news programs will carry it live.

WASHINGTON — One of the perks of Congress? An extra ticket to prime-time politics.

House and Senate members are allowed a guest each to this evening's State of the Union address, and a Tennessee congressman is using the opportunity to push for tougher gun laws.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., confirmed Monday he's inviting a relative of someone who died in December's mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

A Cohen spokesman told the Chattanooga Times Free Press he didn't have further details Monday. It was unclear whether the guest is male or female, child or adult. But the four-term Memphis Democrat appears to be the only Volunteer State lawmaker to publicly back a coordinated gun-control effort among at least two dozen members of Congress.

Twenty-three House Democrats are inviting victims of gun violence "to tell their stories and send a message about guns to Washington" at President Barack Obama's fifth annual keynote address, according to a news release. The guests include relatives of robbery victims, accidental bystanders and the mother of a 15-year-old girl shot dead in Chicago.

"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 group said in a recent letter.

Cohen wasn't included in Monday's news release -- the two Southern Democrats hail from Florida and Virginia -- but his spokesman confirmed the Sandy Hook guest in several emails.

Cohen was unavailable for interviews.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville lawmaker and Tennessee's only other congressional Democrat, is inviting Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos as his State of the Union guest. A Cooper aide said the congressman had no comment on the coordinated effort.

Since the Sandy Hook shootings, Cooper and Cohen have supported Obama's quest to change American gun policy. Both congressmen have slammed easy access to powerful ammunition and called for stronger background checks.

"We need to keep weapons of war off our streets and out of our schools and workplaces," Cooper said in January.

Tennessee Republicans have discussed mass shootings differently, blaming mental health shortfalls and what they label a violent culture.

"I think video games are a bigger problem than guns because video games affect people," U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., recently said on MSNBC.

Local GOP lawmakers are hosting a mix of family, staff and civic leaders this evening.

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., will be joined by his wife, Julianne; Sens. Alexander and Bob Corker, Tennessee's Republican pair, awarded their seats to staffers; and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is hosting Atlanta City Council President Caesar Mitchell.

U.S. Reps. Chuck Fleischmann and Scott DesJarlais, of Ooltewah and Jasper, Tenn., respectively, did not respond to requests for comment.

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