Rep. Jim Langevin smiles in his congressional office as he confidently demonstrates the robotics of his wheelchair, popping upright on the front two wheels of his iBOT 4000 to bring himself eye-to-eye with ABC News’ chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl.
As a 16-year-old, Langevin was critically injured while working with the Warwick Police Department in the Boy Scout Explorer program. A veteran officer handling a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol, not realizing a round rested in the chamber, pulled the trigger, bouncing a bullet off a metal locker and striking the teenager in the neck, severing his spinal cord.
When President Obama prepares to begin his State of the Union address and looks out to his Cabinet, the Supreme Court and a sea of lawmakers tonight, he’ll likely notice the seven-term Democrat off to his right sitting up front in a wheel chair. But Langevin won’t be the only reminder in the House chamber of how guns can change the course of history.
Langevin, the first quadriplegic to serve in the House of Representatives, is leading an effort to persuade lawmakers to give their guest pass to a victim of gun violence. Since the president is expected to address gun violence during his speech, Langevin told Karl that he wanted to be sure there was a “heavy presence” of people who have been directly affected by gun violence in order “to really put a human face on the tragedy of gun violence.”
“I was so affected by the tragic shootings that took place in Newtown, Connecticut, as we all were,” Langevin, D-R.I., said as he explained the impetus behind his idea. “My concern was that the news cycle moves on after a period of time and we’re on to other things and I don’t want us to lose focus on the tragedy of Newtown, the tragedy of these mass shootings that have taken place over the last several years.”
More than two dozen lawmakers have taken Langevin up on his appeal. Attending the president’s address will be victims or family members of victims from some of the nation’s deadliest shootings, including Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson and Newtown. Each member of Congress is entitled to one guest ticket for the State of the Union while the White House and members of congressional leadership get additional guest passes.
“When I asked them to give up their one ticket to someone who has been affected by gun violence, or have been a victim of gun violence themselves, so many of them were ready to embrace the idea right away,” he said.
Langevin invited one of his constituents, Jim Tyrell, to attend the president’s address as his guest. Tyrell’s sister, Debbie, was murdered in 2004 during a robbery at a convenience store she owned in Providence, R.I. The shooter has never been caught.
Langevin, 47, is at the forefront of a growing constituency in Congress calling for a makeover of the nation’s gun laws. Among the proposals, he wants to reinstate an assault weapons ban, limit high-capacity ammunition magazines, crack down on gun trafficking and pass a law requiring universal background checks for every firearm purchase in the country.
“I want members of Congress to know as they’re looking up in the gallery and seeing all the people there that…they are waiting for the Congress to take up meaningful gun control legislation,” Langevin said. “These are human lives, these are real people.”
Langevin recalls the moment in 1980 that forever changed the course of his life.
“I was a 16-year-old police cadet getting ready to go onto my shift. I had dreams of becoming a police officer, going on to the FBI as a FBI agent and it was an exciting time in my life,” he said. “Two police officers were looking at a weapon that one of them had purchased and didn’t realize that the gun was loaded and the gun went off and the bullet ricocheted off of the locker, went through my neck and severed my spinal cord and I have been paralyzed ever since.”
While Langevin concedes that the new gun measures under consideration in Congress wouldn’t have prevented his accident, he wants to ensure that all guns are kept out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, especially criminals and the mentally ill.
“Even though what should have been the safest [of] environments, in my situation being in a police station with trained police officers, my accident happened at the hands of two weapons experts on the police SWAT team,” he said. “If an accident can happen there, an accident can happen anywhere.”
But with lawmakers deeply divided over congressional action, Langevin says he is fearful there will be another mass shooting that could have been prevented if Congress fails to act.
“I don’t want someone else to go through and live through the life that I have had to live through in terms of the challenges that I face,” he said.
House Speaker John Boehner has said he will wait to see how the Senate responds before considering any gun-related legislation in the lower chamber. House Democrats have already unveiled more than a dozen measures to address gun violence and Langevin does not want any further delay.
“I want to vote. I’m asking the Speaker of the House to bring up a bill. Let us have an up or down vote,” Langevin said. “I’d like to see a comprehensive gun control bill brought to the floor, but if we have to do it in several votes that’s fine too. But give us the vote. Let us make our case to our colleagues on the floor and have a vote.”
“We have to do something to try,” he said. “This is the effort, this is the time. If not now, when?”