CHICAGO - President Barack Obama's support for gun control has its roots in his hometown of Chicago, a city plagued by deadly shootings where as many children die from guns every four months as were slaughtered at a horrific school shooting in Connecticut.
Obama told a Chicago audience Friday 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."
Gun control was not on Obama's agenda in his first term, but the president responded quickly to the December shooting of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut.
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. Gun advocates have pushed back hard, arguing that such restrictions are an infringement on the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which states that citizens have the right to bear arms.
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.
"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."
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 (less than 2 kilometres) from Obama's home just days after she performed at the president's inauguration in Washington.
Obama was a reliable vote in favour of gun control as an Illinois state senator in the late 1990s, with one important exception that contributed to his only electoral loss. While running in 1999 for the Democratic primary for a seat in the House of Representatives, Obama missed a vote on a gun control measure that narrowly failed, an episode that he later said cost him any chance to win.
The lesson for the future president: Don't sit idly by in reaction to gun violence.
Earlier Friday at the White House, Obama honoured 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.
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.
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.
"And so, less than halfway into the campaign, I knew in my bones that I was going to lose," he wrote.
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 the presidential plane Friday when he flew home.
Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler, Darlene Superville, John O'Connor, Calvin Woodward, Josh Lederman and Associated Press news researcher Monika Mathur contributed to this report.
Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler and Darlene Superville at https://twitter.com/dsupervilleap
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