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Why This Emotional Newtown Guest Turned Down the State of the Union

When President Obama delivers his address, he'll speak to a chamber attended by more than 20 Americans affected by gun violence. But one Sandy Hook widower won't be there. 

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When President Obama approaches the podium for his State of the Union tomorrow, he'll speak to a Congressional chamber attended by more than 20 Americans affected by gun violence. Many gun reform-minded lawmakers have arranged to bring survivors of shootings as their guests. But one Sandy Hook widower won't be lending the symbolic weight of his presence at Obama's address.

The AP's Andrew Miga and Michael Melia report that Trumbull, Connecticut resident Bill Sherlach has turned down a State of the Union invitation from Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, distancing himself from "the political aspect" that he believes "pulls people to one extreme or the other extreme." His wife Mary, a psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School, was one of the six educators who died in the Newtown school shootings. Like the teachers and undocumented immigrants who'll lend urgency to the education and immigration debates, the presence of gun violence survivors is meant to underscore the human cost of inaction on gun policy.

But Sherlach has taken a much gentler, across-the-aisle approach toward violence reduction advocacy than Congress has. Appearing as a face of gun reform in Washington wouldn't quite square with his work for a local non-profit called Sandy Hook Promise. While lawmakers wrestle with specific policies about assault weapons and background checks, this grassroots organization describes its bipartisan mission with no reference to guns whatsoever. When the President issued a series of executive actions on guns, Sandy Hook Promise responded positively but also distanced itself from political endorsements, saying "a solution won’t happen just in Washington."

Every time the group's Executive Committee members have been asked about gun policies, they've taken the middle road. "It's either 'Take the guns away!' or 'I'm afraid you're going to take my guns away!' We need to find a middle ground," Lee Shull told The Newtown Bee's Nancy K. Crevier. They've refrained from making specific recommendations about gun control, expressed willingness to listen to gun advocacy groups, and even say that some Sandy Hook Promise members also belong to the National Rifle Association. Contrast that with the approach taken by Rep. Himes (he has co-sponsored legislation to ban high-capacity clips and once said that staunch gun proponents have "blood on their hands"), and you start to understand why Sherlach turned down the invitation.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.