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First lady wades into debate over gun violence

CHICAGO – First lady Michelle Obama made a deeply personal entrance into the gun debate Wednesday, the eve of a showdown in Congress, by comparing herself to the honor student from her hometown shot to death a week after performing as a majorette in the presidential inaugural parade.

Mrs. Obama told a conference on youth violence that the new gun regulations her husband proposed in response to Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting deserve a vote in Congress. But she says reducing daily gun deaths in places like Chicago, with its 500 homicides last year, also will require an intensive effort by community leaders.

As part of a rare foray into a policy debate, Mrs. Obama highlighted the case of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, shot in the back Jan. 29 while hanging out with friends at a park, about a mile from the Obamas' South Side home. Mrs. Obama attended Pendleton's funeral and said she was struck by how familiar the Pendleton family seemed to her own.

"Hadiya Pendleton was me and I was her," Mrs. Obama said. "But I got to grow up and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine."

Mrs. Obama said the only difference between herself and the young people killed on the Chicago streets is that she had a few more advantages – involved adults, good schools, a supportive community and a safe neighborhood.

"That was the difference between growing up and becoming a lawyer, a mother and first lady of the United States and being shot dead at the age of 15," Mrs. Obama said, her voice gripped with emotion.

The speech was Mrs. Obama's first public remarks on gun violence since the Sandy Hook shooting in December took the lives of 20 students and six faculty and reignited a national debate over gun control. With the fate of the administration's efforts still uncertain, the White House was mounting an all-hands-on-deck push this week to keep the public engaged.

The president delivered a speech Monday in Connecticut, and 12 family members of Sandy Hook victims joined him on the return flight to Washington and have since been lobbying members of Congress. Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder promoted gun legislation Tuesday at the White House, and Biden was set to make the case again Thursday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

The Senate was planning an initial vote Thursday to begin debating gun legislation, with some Republicans attempting to block consideration of the measure. Two pivotal senators announced a bipartisan deal Wednesday to expand background checks to more gun sales, which could build support for President Barack Obama's drive to tighten firearms laws. But the legislation faces strong opposition from the National Rifle Association and lawmakers who say it would violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

"Right now, my husband is fighting as hard as he can and engaging as many people as he can to pass common sense reforms to protect our children from gun violence," Mrs. Obama said to applause. "And these reforms deserve a vote in Congress."

Mrs. Obama was addressing Chicago business and community leaders at a luncheon hosted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, her husband's former chief of staff, who is trying to raise money to fund programs for at-risk youth.

Among those in the audience was Hall of Fame basketball player Isiah Thomas, raised in Chicago public housing. Thomas said the youth basketball leagues he participates in are critical to reducing violence.

"It's hard to kill somebody that you play with every day," Thomas said.

After her speech, Mrs. Obama visited Harper High School in the violent, gang-plagued community of Englewood. Harper was recently featured in a public radio documentary on "This American Life," which reported that more than two dozen current and former students were shot — eight of them fatally — in the last year alone.

"There isn't much distance between me and you," Mrs. Obama told the students. She encouraged them to take their education seriously.

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Pickler reported from Washington.

Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler

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