CHICAGO – President Barack Obama's support for gun control has its roots in a hometown plagued by deadly shootings — a city, he said Friday, where as many children die from guns every four months as were slaughtered at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut.
Obama told a Chicago audience that high-profile mass shootings are one part of a national tragedy created not just by guns but by communities where there is too little hope. As a result, he said, "too many of our children are being taking away from us."
It was an emotional return to a city whose recent shooting victims have included Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old drum majorette gunned down a mile from Obama's Chicago home just days after she performed at the president's inauguration in Washington. Standing before Hyde Park Academy students in their navy uniform shirts, the president said 65 children were killed by gun violence last year in Chicago. "That's the equivalent of a Newtown every four months," Obama said. Twenty children were among the dead in the Newtown massacre.
"This is not just a gun issue," Obama said. "It's also an issue of the kinds of communities that we're building, and for that we all share responsibility as citizens to fix it. We all share a responsibility to move this country closer to our founding vision, that no matter who you were or where you come from, here in America, you can decide your own destiny."
Obama was a reliable vote in favor of gun control as a state senator in the late 1990s, with one important exception that contributed to his only electoral loss. While running for the Democratic primary for a House seat in 1999, Obama missed a vote on a gun control measure that narrowly failed, an episode that he later said cost him any chance to win.
Gun control was not on Obama's agenda in his first term as president. But now, at the start of his second term, Obama is seizing an opportunity to act that emerged from national outrage over the Newtown shooting in December. He is pushing measures including background checks for all gun purchases and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, even as both sides in the debate doubt he'll be able to achieve the full package.
"These proposals deserve a vote in Congress," Obama said in his Hyde Park Academy visit. It's rhetoric he also used in the State of the Union address Tuesday.
Earlier Friday at the White House, Obama honored the six educators killed in the Connecticut shooting by presenting the Presidential Citizens Medal to their families. "They gave their lives to protect the precious children in their care," Obama said.
In Chicago, Obama mourned the death of Pendleton, whose funeral Michelle Obama had attended. "Unfortunately, what happened to Hadiya's not unique," the president said. "It's not unique to Chicago, it's not unique to this country. Too many of our children are being taken away from us."
Critics of Obama's effort note that Chicago's spike in homicides offers evidence gun restrictions don't work. The city prohibited handguns until a 2010 Supreme Court ruling threw out the ban. Chicago then adopted a strict gun ordinance that requires gun owners to be fingerprinted, undergo a background check, pass a training class and pay fees that can be higher than the price of the weapons. Still, the city's homicide rate rose to more than 500 last year.
Gun control proponents say Chicago illustrates the need for tougher restrictions nationally because guns are coming from outside the city. Statistics show that more than half of the guns seized by Chicago police in the last 12 years came from other states. A University of Chicago study found that more than 1,300 guns confiscated by police since 2008 were purchased at a single store just outside city limits. More than 270 were used in crimes.
Violence has long been a problem in Chicago, a city the president represented for eight years in the state Senate while building a record of voting for gun control. He invoked the ire of gun rights advocates when he voted against a measure that would have exempted prosecution of people who fire guns to fend off home invaders, inspired by a man who shot an intruder who repeatedly broke into his home.
"It became very obvious he was not going to be one of our guys," said Richard Pearson, president of the Illinois State Rifle Association. He said it wasn't that surprising, given the city that Obama represented. "You're not allowed to be a politician from Chicago and support gun rights," Pearson said with a laugh.
In 1999, Obama made his first run for national office by entering the Democratic primary race for Congress against incumbent Rep. Bobby Rush. In October 1999, Rush's son was fatally shot by drug dealers outside his home, and Obama suspended his campaign for a month.
That December, Obama announced he would push federal gun legislation that goes far beyond than what he is proposing now. It would have limited gun purchases to one a month, banned the sale of firearms other than antiques at gun shows, limited the sale of guns to adults over 21 who took a training course and increased gun licensing fees. He also would have increased the penalties on gun runners and brought a felony charge against owners who didn't lock up firearms that were later stolen and used in a crime.
He announced the antigun plan near the home of an 84-year-old woman killed when several young men invaded her home mistakenly believing she won the lottery.
But Obama went to his native Hawaii for the Christmas holiday to see his grandmother and spend time with his wife and then 18-month-old daughter, Malia. He wrote in his autobiography "The Audacity of Hope" about how the Legislature was called back into special session while he was gone, but Malia was sick and unable to fly home.
"I got off the redeye at O'Hare Airport, a wailing baby in tow, Michelle not speaking to me, and was greeted by a front page story in the Chicago Tribune indicating that the gun bill had fallen a few votes short, and that state senator and congressional candidate Obama 'had decided to remain on vacation' in Hawaii," Obama wrote. "My campaign manager called, mentioning the potential ad the congressman might be running soon — palm trees, a man in a beach chair and straw hat sipping a mai tai, a slack key guitar being strummed softly in the background, the voice-over explaining, 'While Chicago suffered the highest murder rate in its history, Barack Obama...'
"I stopped him there, having gotten the idea," Obama continued. "And so, less than halfway into the campaign, I knew in my bones that I was going to lose."
It would be his only loss. Obama went on to win the U.S. Senate race in 2004 and then the presidency just four years later. He brought Rush along on Air Force One on Friday when he flew home.
Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press news researcher Monika Mathur and AP writers John O'Connor in Springfield, Ill., and Calvin Woodward and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.
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