Of the many guests President Obama and the first lady will invite to the State of the Union, one stands out.
It was the first guest announced, and it’s arguably the most important, and sadly relatable, guest an administration has ever played host to. That guest is, of course, the empty seat, representing those who’ve been lost to gun violence.
Since the announcement, families of gun violence victims and survivors have rallied around the hashtag #EmptySeat, using it to express the feeling of loss that comes along with losing loved ones to gun violence.
“It’s terrifyingly easy to buy a gun without a background check in far too many states.” — Lucy McBath, mother of 17-year-old shooting victim Jordan Davis
Some of the families sharing their stories lost loved ones in highly publicized mass shootings.
Such as Dave Sanders, a teacher who was gunned down trying to save students during the attack at Columbine High School.
Or 6-year-old Noah Pozner, who was shot and killed in the 2012 attack at Sandy Hook.
“#EmptySeat is an expression of our daily anguish and grief for our loved ones stolen or affected by gun violence,” Caren Teves told Upworthy in an email. She lost her 24-year-old son Alex Teves in the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting that killed 12 and injured 70 in July 2012.
“It is a public outcry to demand Congressional action, as well as thanking President Obama for his executive actions.”
Lucy McBath — whose son Jordan Davis was 17 years old when he was shot and killed at a Jacksonville, Florida, gas station in an argument over loud music back in November 2012 — is also sadly familiar with the symbolism of the empty chair.
“At what should have been Jordan’s high school graduation, his classmates left a seat open for him. His music teacher kept a chair open in class,” McBath told Upworthy over email.
“To honor Jordan’s memory, I’ve made it my life mission to help prevent other families from going through the pain of having a loved one taken by senseless gun violence.”
Others are using the #EmptySeat hashtag to honor the many victims of gun violence whose stories we’ll never hear.
This woman’s uncle who died by suicide.
Or those who’ve had their weapons used against them.
#EmptySeat for @MeganBoken, shot and killed in a robbery in STL at age 23. Our hearts ache for her every day. #SOTU pic.twitter.com/mKMM8tluPj— annie (@bokenam) January 12, 2016
A quick look through the hashtag can be absolutely heart-wrenching — so keep that in mind before you check it out. It provides a very real, very human look at loss, mourning, and the true cost of violence.
It’s those stories — the ones we’d never otherwise hear — that make the #EmptySeat hashtag so powerful.
Regardless where you stand on gun control, it’s clear that something needs to change.
Unfettered access to guns is not a sound policy position, nor was it the founders’ intent when crafting the Second Amendment (that whole “well-regulated” part is pretty important). The overwhelming majority of Americans support mandatory background checks on all gun purchases. So why can’t we make that happen?
“It’s terrifyingly easy to buy a gun without a background check in far too many states,” says McBath. “There is so much more we can do to keep guns out of dangerous hands. … It’s time for elected leaders in states across the country to close the loopholes that make it easy for dangerous people to get guns.”
Standing by while people, like those remembered by friends and family with the #EmptySeat hashtag, continue to lose their lives to gun violence is not an option.
Platitudes like “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” do nothing to stem the ongoing loss of life. Placing blame on people with mental illness is neither fair nor effective at cutting down on violence. The fact is that the vast majority of people involved in shootings are not mentally ill.
While the executive actions laid out by President Obama are a start, they don’t (and they can’t) completely close the loophole that allows people to buy and sell guns without performing background checks at gun shows and via private sale. For this type of real, concrete change to happen, Congress needs to take action.
We need to do something. We don’t need any more empty seats.