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Congresswoman Norma Torres

Representing the 35th District of California

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Dec. 2 survivors, first responders on State of the Union address

January 12, 2016
In The News

The empty chair in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box during the State of the Union address wasn’t the only reminder Tuesday night of the toll of mass shootings in America.

Although President Barack Obama never said the words “San Bernardino” during his one-hour final State of the Union speech, he specifically called on Congress to “protect our kids from gun violence,” and alluded to the events in San Bernardino and Redlands when he warned against vilifying Muslims at home and abroad for the actions of a lunatic fringe:

“Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped,” Obama said. “But they do not threaten our national existence. That’s the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, nor do we need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is representative of one of the world’s largest religions. We just need to call them what they are – killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.”

Inland Empire residents whose lives were affected by the Dec. 2 terrorist attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino were also in attendance, including surviving family members and first responders.

Among those in attendance at President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address was Ryan Reyes, the partner of Larry “Daniel” Kaufman, one of the 14 people killed by Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, as the guest of Michelle Obama.

Trenna Meins, the wife of Damian Meins, another of the 14 killed on Dec. 2, was also there, along with her daughters in the upstairs gallery, looking down on the president and the members of both houses of Congress. Prior to the president’s address Tuesday night, she discussed her family’s feelings on guns and gun ownership with CNN.

“We’re a family that had guns. Our family has guns; there’s hunters, there’s policemen and SWAT team members in our family that have guns,” she said. “Since this has happened, we have found a lot of loopholes that we didn’t know existed. We’d like those loopholes to become tighter ... so, at least it’s more difficult to buy guns.”

The executive actions Obama announced that he would be taken to make it harder to acquire guns without official notice have drawn criticism, especially on the right, but Meins called it a “good step.”

Meins and her daughters were the guests of Rep. Mark Takano, D-Riverside.

“America’s respect really derives from the freedom, the opportunity, the respect we give every citizen,” Takano said after, just after leaving the floor of the House of Representatives. “I was particularly struck by his call for Americans to not single out anybody for different treatment. I felt that he was being obliquely critical of excessive statements that have been made to vilify certain groups of Americans.”

The president said Americans need to “reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion.”

“When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong,” Obama said. “It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”

The president not specifically mentioning the Dec. 2 attack didn’t bother Takano.

“I was hopeful that he would mention the events in San Bernardino and the Inland Empire, but I felt that he alluded (to the attack), in several places of the speech, in his call for respect and tolerance,” he said. “Even though he didn’t mention the San Bernardino shootings specifically, there was no doubt that the tone of the speech was clearly shaped by the events that hurt the Inland Empire.”

San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan, San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon and James Parnell, the director of patient care for adult trauma at Loma Linda University Medical Center, were the guests of Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-San Bernardino. The three men were at the forefront to respond to the attack at the IRC.

“I would have preferred if he would have recognized San Bernardino and what the residents have gone through,” Aguilar said after. “Clearly, we know that we’re in the president’s thoughts by his trip and visit to meet with the families (of Dec. 2 victims). I spoke with him briefly after the speech to thank him for visiting the families and reiterated his invitation to come back and see our progress and visit with the families.”

Burguan said he has no doubt about the federal government’s support for San Bernardino in the aftermath of the attack.

“I feel pretty confident that we’ve got a lot of support from the federal government in the recovery process,” he said after the speech.

Burguan and McMahon arrived in Washington on Sunday night and had “non-stop” meetings with officials on Monday and Tuesday, McMahon said, including meetings with multiple members of Congress and high-ranking officials at the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security.

“All of the elected representatives have pledged their support to us,” McMahon said. “They’re going to do everything in their power to ensure that we’re going to get the money we need to recoup our costs.”

Burguan admitted to being “a little discouraged by the process” of recouping the money spent on the response to Dec. 2, as police staff will have to go after “six or seven funding streams” to do so, requiring a large amount of administrative work along the way.

Also present at the speech was Anne Marie Teall, the police dispatch supervisor for the City of San Bernardino. Not surprisingly, this was her first time seeing a State of the Union address in person.

“First time in DC, first time for a number of things today. It was great,” Teall said after. “I came in with an open mind, because I’m not particularly political.”

Up in the gallery, Teall saw the president when he entered the chamber and when he left, but during the speech itself, she couldn’t see through the crowd. But that was OK with her:

“I liked the seats, because we got to see the reaction of the crowd and the reaction of the people in the other side of the gallery,” she said.

Like Takano, Teall wasn’t bothered by the lack of the explicit mention of the Dec. 2 attack.

“There is so much going on in the United States and so much he needed to cover and he did go over terrorism and violence in the United States,” she said. “I think he touched on it and left it open to come back later.”

Teall was the guest of Rep. Norma Torres, D-Pomona.

“I was disappointed that he did not bring up San Bernardino or bring up the guests, but we knew in advance that he was not going to mention even his own guests,” Torres said after. “But I was really happy to hear his comments on homeland security and ensuring that the American people feel their government is working for them and that national security will continue to be our number one priority. That was something we needed to hear in San Bernardino.”

That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Janice Hahn, D-San Pedro.

“America already is great but we know that it can be made better,” Hahn is quoted as saying in a statement released after the address. “Not with messages of hate and disrespect. Not with plans to discriminate, belittle others, and do away with American values. We make this nation better by embracing American values -- coming together when times are hard, solving problems by looking ahead instead of turning back, and always championing liberty and justice for all. I think the president delivered this message loud and clear tonight and I join him in working toward that future.”

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, agreed.

“Vocal support for immigration and minorities is vital today as we are facing a nasty and un-American anti-immigrant backlash,” Chu is quoted as saying in a written statement released by her office. “The hate speech coming from the highest levels of our political conversations is dangerous, leading to an increase in violence against Muslim Americans. We cannot let ourselves be torn apart by xenophobia.”

This was Torres’ second time being in the audience for the State of the Union address after being elected in 2014.

“We were packed like sardines,” Torres laughed.

During the address, both the Senate and House of Representatives share the space normally just used by the members of the House.

“The energy inside the chamber is just amazing -- hearing the clapping and cheering,” Torres said. “Being in the chamber (last year), with that energy, that’s when it first hit me: ‘Wow, I’m in Congress. This is the real thing.’”