First Lady Michelle Obama sits next to a vacant seat to honor victims of gun violence during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 12, 2016.
Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

Why there was an empty seat at Obama’s final State of the Union


As President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union address before Congress and the American people, there was an ominous, empty seat in the first lady’s guest box.

It wasn’t for an attendee who’d misplaced their ticket. Or some straggler kept at bay by the prolonged security measures in place for Obama’s State of the Union finale. But as empty and quiet as that seat remained through the president’s rousing address to the nation, its symbolism rang loud and clear.

Obama left that chair unfilled as a tribute to victims of gun violence, a group Obama has said is too often rendered voiceless.

But, much like that empty seat, the president’s speech was largely silent on gun violence.

Guns kill more than 30,000 Americans each year. Most are suicides. But a tragically high number are homicides. Nearly 85,000 more survive gunshot wounds, many of whom are left with catastrophic injuries, both physical and emotional. Since 2001 the scourge of gun violence has killed more Americans than terrorism, war and AIDS – combined.

As Congress has done little to stem the bleeding, Obama in recent weeks has called curbing gun violence one last bit of “unfinished business” before his final term in office ends.

Just last week the president elevated the issue of gun control back into the national political dialogue when he announced a series of executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence mainly through tightening gun sales loopholes and bolstering the national background check system. The actions, a 10-point plan, circumvented Congress and riled his political rivals.

While the new guidance does not directly upend the universe of gun violence, for a host of organizations and individuals, these were steps in the right direction, a direction Congress so far has been unwilling to go.

In his silence on Monday night, it’s possible that Obama, on that stage delivering his final address, was unwilling to taint his spirited speech with divisive and dispiriting talk of guns and gun deaths.

His speech did much to address how far the country has come since he took office nearly 8 years ago. Perhaps he didn’t want to overshadow a well-crafted, deftly delivered speech on where he thought the nation could expand opportunity, equality, safety and innovation in the years to come.

Perhaps, he thought that empty chair spoke loudly enough. 

Barack Obama, Gun Violence and State of the Union

Why there was an empty seat at Obama's final State of the Union