As President Barack Obama stood at a White House podium last week, wiping away tears during his first remarks about the Connecticut school massacre, he said gun violence victims are often “on a street corner in Chicago.”
The man who was Obama’s first chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, receives daily reports showing just that: Shooting incidents have so far increased 12 percent and murders 19 percent from 2011, even as total crime in the city has dropped.
The president’s hometown and home state are on the front line of the struggle to defend some of the same gun-control measures he’s been urged to support after 26 people -- mostly children -- were killed during a Dec. 14 shooting rampage at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
Just last week, a federal appeals court in Chicago struck down an Illinois law banning loaded guns from being carried, except in homes or businesses. The court gave the state, the only one with an outright prohibition on loaded weapons outside the home, 180 days to draft new legislation consistent with public safety and the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.
That followed a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against a Chicago ban on handguns, even for self-defense in a home, that the justices said went too far.
As a presidential candidate in 2007, Obama offered rhetoric on the need to bolster gun-control laws that was similar to his remarks at a memorial service this week in Connecticut.
“Our playgrounds have become battlegrounds,” he told a packed church on Chicago’s south side, as he challenged the government, gun lobby and public to reduce violence. “Our streets have become cemeteries. Our schools have become places to mourn the ones we’ve lost. The violence is unacceptable.”
Obama at the time called for better enforcement of existing gun laws, tighter background checks on gun buyers and a permanent assault-weapons ban.
After his first year in office, though, the Washington- based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gave him its lowest grade of “F” for “failed leadership” on the issue. The center held a news conference yesterday in Washington where family members of gunshot victims, including some from Chicago, testified about their tragedies and called for action.
Obama’s Chicago roots and his personal history have given him close-up experience with gun violence. During his days as a community organizer, Obama was a bystander amid a volley of shots fired by a teenage gunman. His lack of action as president troubles some supporters.
“People will get frustrated with him because something they care about a lot isn’t moving forward,” said Representative Mike Quigley, a Democrat who represents part of Chicago and its suburbs. “He appears in their minds to not care about it.”
Quigley said Obama, 51, also moved more slowly on gay-and- lesbian-rights issues than members of that community would have liked, before taking actions that pleased them.
“This is a man, a president, who takes his time, takes a lot of thought on an issue, but once he makes up his mind, as it is clear that he has done on this issue, he’s very effective and to the point,” he said.
Chicago’s violence has long burdened Obama’s political career. One of his first high-profile brushes with the anguish associated with gun violence came amid his unsuccessful primary campaign for Congress against Representative Bobby Rush.
Rush’s son was shot in October 1999 and died four days later, producing an outpouring of support for the incumbent that Obama was unable to overcome in the Democratic primary.
Later that year, the Illinois legislature was called into special session to consider gun-safety initiatives that Obama supported. When a crucial vote came earlier than expected, Obama was in Hawaii visiting his grandmother. The legislation failed by five votes as he remained in Hawaii to help care for a sick daughter, sparking criticism.
As Obama weighs how hard to push for gun-control measures in Washington, the experience of his hometown adds urgency.
“The issue of gun control has more resonance in urban areas where we struggle with dispiriting reports of gun violence,” said Toni Preckwinkle, chief executive of Cook County, which includes Chicago. “You dread to read the Monday morning paper to hear how many young people have been shot or killed as a result of gun violence.”
Preckwinkle, who lives in a district Obama once represented in the state legislature, stopped short of criticizing the president for lack of action on gun control.
“If you are an executive, you have to set priorities,” she said. “Clearly the president’s priority was passage of health care.”
Through Dec. 9, there were 487 murders in Chicago, according to the police department website. About a quarter of murder victims were under the age of 18 and virtually all those deaths were from guns, according to the RainbowPUSH Coalition, a Chicago-based advocacy group founded by the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Emanuel, who has blamed gang activity on the murder increase, this week called for an assault-weapons ban at the state and federal level and said the time had come for a “vote of conscience” in Congress on gun issues.
The mayor, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview request. He defended the president’s gun record in an interview yesterday on the CBS television network.
“The president’s record is very, very clear on this,” he said. “It’s clear when he was a state senator. It was clear when he was also a U.S. senator. It was clear also as president.”
Emanuel was an aide to President Bill Clinton when an assault-weapons ban was passed by Congress as part of a crime bill. That ban expired in 2004, and there have been calls to restore it following the Connecticut shootings.
The mayor didn’t deny an anecdote in the book “Kill or Capture” that quoted him as using an expletive in anger after Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2009 that the president backed a ban on assault weapons. Emanuel was concerned that such a push would be a distraction.
“President Obama always stood for getting this done,” Emanuel said yesterday, adding that the president didn’t do anything about gun control because he was “dealing with a myriad of issues,” including a struggling economy and health- care legislation.
Chicago’s murders are concentrated in the city’s poorer south and west side neighborhoods. The rate has slowed some since a spike in the first quarter, after the city targeted gangs, closed liquor stores and demolished vacant buildings.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who served with Obama in the state legislature, declined an interview request. She’s weighing an appeal of the federal court decision striking down the ban on guns carried outside a home or business.
In Obama’s 2008 White House bid, he sought to reassure gun owners by telling them that he believed in “common-sense gun safety laws” and wouldn’t “take your guns away.”
Four years later, there are mixed views in his home state about just how aggressive he should be on the issue.
“Don’t touch our guns,” said Roger Hastings, 40, who works at a machine repair and rental shop in rural McClure, Illinois.
Others said it’s time for Washington to add limitations. “It’s one thing to kill adults, but it’s an entirely different situation when children die,” said Tara Prince, 39, who lives in rural Jonesboro and works for a landscaping company.
To contact the reporter on this story: John McCormick in Chicago at firstname.lastname@example.org.