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For some, gun control central to Obama's State of the union speech

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WASHINGTON - When Mavy Stoddard heard the first gunshot, she whirled around to find herself directly in the shooter's line of fire. She felt a shove as her husband, Dorwan, pushed her to the ground and covered her, protecting her from the gunman.

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Dorwan died that Saturday two years ago, saving his wife at a Safeway in Tucson, Ariz., the site of the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords, then a House member.

As President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he will do so in the presence of Stoddard, her grandson Chad Robinson and about 20 other victims of gun violence from all over the country.

Organized by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, it's an unusual tactic to have a group of people advocating for one issue "pack" the House of Representatives' visitor galleries.

Members of Congress who have given a ticket for the address to a victim of gun violence include Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Jim Langevin, D-R.I.; Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., and Elizabeth Etsy, D-Conn. Perlmutter and Etsy represent Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. The parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl from Chicago who was shot by a gang member on Jan. 29, will be guests of Michelle Obama.

More than 100 victims of gun crimes flocked to Capitol Hill earlier Tuesday to lobby members of Congress for stricter gun laws. At a Senate subcommittee hearing on gun violence and its effect on communities, Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked members of the audience who had been affected by gun violence to stand. Nearly half the crowd rose to its feet.

"This is not some abstract legal debate," Durbin said. "Guns have changed the lives of so many people."

Members of the Judiciary Committee subcommittee disagreed about the means by which gun control laws could be passed while respecting the Second Amendment.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the committee's senior Republican, questioned Timothy J. Heaphy, U.S attorney for the Western District of Virginia, about empirical evidence he could provide that would prove that cities with the strictest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun violence.

Cruz said that two cities with the strictest gun control policies, Washington and Chicago, have both suffered from the highest murder rates in the country.

Washington, population 632,323, had 108 murders in 2011 and 88 in 2012, a decline of 19 percent. That is a sharp decline from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Chicago, population 2.7 million, reported 435 murders in 2011 and 506 in 2012, an increase of 16 percent.

"Constitutional rights are designed to be protected not just when they're popular, but especially when passions are seeking to restrict and limit those rights," Cruz said.

Heaphy said that, in his career as a law enforcement agent, the issue of homicide rates has remained complex and involves many factors, including differences in health care, economic and educational opportunities. He said that tying gun ownership to increases in gun violence is not a direct correlation.

Sen. Maizie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, said her state has very strict gun laws and a low rate of gun violence.

Victims of gun violence hope that Obama's State of the Union speech will launch an even more robust legislative campaign to get assault weapons and large-capacity magazines banned.

"We don't need assault weapons for anything but war and police work," said Stoddard, who owns guns and said she often travels with one.

"If you had a gun pointed at your family, you would think twice about saying no when the law came up," Stoddard said.

Reach Reporter Jess Miller at jessica.miller@shns.com or 202-326-9871.

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