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'This is my life right now': Grieving families join the gun-control fight

It wasn't even noon and Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton was exhausted. She’d been up since about 6 a.m.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, foreground, meets with Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, left, and Nathaniel A. Pendleton Sr., center, and Van Vincent, Thursday, April 4, 2013 at City Hall in New York. The Pendletons are the parents of Hadiya...
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, foreground, meets with Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, left, and Nathaniel A. Pendleton Sr., center, and Van Vincent,...

It wasn't even noon and Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton was exhausted. She’d been up since about 6 a.m. and had already met with the Mayor of New York City, hugged and kissed a slew of well-wishers, and sat down for an impromptu interview. She hadn’t had a bite to eat all morning, let alone the time to catch her breath.

“This is my life right now,” she said, easing onto a bench in the lobby of a Midtown Manhattan hotel on Thursday morning. “I’m tired. But I’m stepping up to the cause and I won’t stop until these gun laws are changed.”

Cowley-Pendleton is the mother of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old honor student who was gunned down in a Chicago park just a week after performing at President Obama’s inauguration in Washington.

And like the parents of students killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, and the parents of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin before them, and a host of other victims of gun violence preceding them all, Cowley-Pendleton has taken up the delicate balance of grieving while fighting for tougher gun laws.

She’s joined the gun reform group Moms Demand Action and started a foundation in Hadiya’s name. There’s also a bill named after Hadiya, working its way  through the Senate, designed to crack down on straw purchases, in which a person legally able to buy a gun purchases one for someone who isn’t.

Cowley-Pendleton has met with President Obama and the First Lady and has rallied for change in Chicago and across the country, and she has the ear of high-profile anti-gun advocates like New York City’s billionaire Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who recently pledged $12 million of his own money to sponsor ads putting pressure on lawmakers to pass “common sense” gun legislation.

Cowley-Pendleton said that she and Hadiya’s father, Nathaniel Pendleton, met with Mayor Bloomberg at City Hall on Thursday morning for about 30 minutes. She called the mayor, “very nice” and “a good man.”

“It’s comforting to know that we’re all on the same line,” Nathaniel Pendleton said. “Before, I was one of the people that looked at the news and said it won’t ever happen to me. Now my daughter’s face has become the face of the fight against gun violence. We’re fighting now so that no other family will have to go through what we’ve been through.”

“I think a lot of the people still fighting for looser gun laws haven’t lost anyone to a gun,” he continued.

On April 8, when the Senate returns to Washington, senators are set to debate a new package of gun legislation that includes a key provision requiring a background check for all gun purchases and stricter laws around gun trafficking. The battle over gun-control is heating up in Washington, but also in states like Maryland and Connecticut, both of which this week passed tough new measures banning the sale of certain types of weapons and high-capacity magazines. And while there has been movement on the state level, Congress, pro-gun-control groups and the NRA are hunkering down for a protracted battle.

“Politics are politics. There are those that are sincere and have been there with our family and others who don’t seem to care about what these guns are doing to our communities,” Cowley-Pendleton said. “But if I have to present ID at Walgreens to get Sudafed, it just makes sense that someone should have to show ID at a gun show to get a gun.”

Hadiya’s parents joined other victims of gun violence in New York City this week for Al Sharpton’s National Action Network’s annual convention. During one session Thursday morning on African-American manhood, Hadiya’s father was on a panel with Tracy Martin, the father of Trayvon Martin.

“There’s definitely a lot of road we have to travel,” Martin said. “But I’d like to talk about going through the grieving process.”

Trayvon Martin’s killing a little more than a year ago by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer at a gated community in a suburb of Orlando, Florida, who claimed he shot the unarmed teen in self-defense. The killing sparked national outrage. Police initially supported Zimmerman’s claims of self-defense and declined to arrest him, based in part on Florida’s so-called Stand Your Ground laws which give wide discretion in the use of deadly force.

Zimmerman was later arrested and charged with Martin’s killing. Martin’s family has since started a website and Political Action Committee to contest similar laws and to subsidize candidates who oppose them.

Family members of victims in other recent mass shootings have also joined the debate about stricter gun laws.

Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son was one of the victims at Sandy Hook, praised Obama for pushing Congress to pass new gun-control legislation, while saying the pain of his loss is “never going away.” He told Hardball host Chris Matthews during a recent interview that the automatic assault rifle allegedly used during the massacre, and others like it, “don’t have a place on the street, they don’t have a place in our schools.”

“I think our politicians are listening, whether they’re going to do the right thing or not remains to be seen,” Lori Haas, a mother of a Virginia Tech shooting survivor, told Matthews during the same interview. “We’re going to have a vote. It’s going to count. America is watching, listening, waiting and learning to see who is doing the right thing and who’s doing the wrong thing…Enough is enough in this area and we’re going to talk to our politicians. And we’re not going away.”

Meanwhile, just last week, Cowley-Pendleton joined President Obama in Washington at an event in which Obama invoked Hadiya’s memory as well as that of the 20 children killed at Sandy Hook, saying:

“The agony burns deep in the families of thousands, thousands of Americans who have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun over the last 100 days, including Hadiya Pendleton… whose mom is also here today. Everything they lived for and hoped for, taken away in an instant."

As Cowley-Pendleton stood by the president that day, back in Chicago the two suspects arrested Hadiya’s death, ages 18 and 20, pleaded not guilty to murder. (In a move that some observers called "grandstanding," prosecutors charged the 18-year-old, who is the alleged shooter, with 141 counts of murder; the older suspect faces 17 counts.)

“I’ve stood up for the cause,” Cowley-Pendleton said, her face glowing despite her obvious exhaustion. “But I’m a mom and I have my quiet time and tears.”

Watch the Andrea Mitchell Reports interview with Nate Pendleton and Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton below: