The shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton has propelled Chicago to a central position in the national gun debate and prompted President Barack Obama to turn to his hometown for help in selling his anti-violence initiatives to the public.
With the spotlight firmly on Chicago, where violence claimed more than 500 lives last year, the president has enlisted grieving relatives to put a face on the pain and suffering that lingers after a murder.
At Tuesday night's State of the Union address, Hadiya's parents, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel Pendleton, will be seated with first lady Michelle Obama, who attended the 15-year-old's funeral on Saturday.
Also Tuesday, relatives of other Chicago homicide victims will visit Washington to lobby lawmakers for tougher gun measures. A Senate hearing will take testimony from Sandra Wortham, sister of police Officer Thomas Wortham, who survived military service in Iraq only to be shot to death in the Chatham neighborhood in 2010.
And Friday, Obama will return to his hometown to talk about the economy and gun violence, answering a call for presidential attention from people in Chicago's most crime-plagued neighborhoods.
While the president is attempting to get Congress to pass federal legislation that would ban assault weapons, limit high-capacity ammunition magazines and strengthen background checks for gun owners, Chicago and Illinois are trying to tackle their own gun concerns.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Monday that he welcomes the president coming to Chicago. He acknowledged that more federal resources to fight the violence would be welcome but said Obama's presence alone will be powerful.
"I don't think there's anybody better than the president of the United States to also have a conversation of how we get our young men who have in the past been the victims and also the perpetrators … into a real conversation of mentors, moral anchoring, a better sense of who they are and their potential," the mayor said.
"Given that the lion's share of both the perpetrators and the victims are young African-American men, who better to have that discussion than the president of the United States, who has repeatedly talked about fathering and the role of fathering?" Emanuel said.
Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, acknowledged that he is concerned about the momentum being built in Illinois over the gun issue. But he said it is misdirected.
"This argument should be about gang shootings and has nothing to do with law-abiding citizens. But the legislation is all about law-abiding citizens and has nothing to do with gangs," Pearson said. "We have to redirect this conversation toward the drug-trafficking gangs in the city of Chicago."
Pearson expects the president's visit to Chicago to affect his gun agenda. But it won't improve public safety if the economic and social conditions that cause the street violence are ignored, he said.
"Whenever the president goes anywhere, it has a large impact," Pearson said. "But all this talk is just fluff to keep from talking about the real issues."
Over the next two days, 120 relatives of homicide victims from across the country will meet with lawmakers in Washington and attend a briefing at the White House. Among them will be several Chicagoans: the Pendletons, Annette Nance-Holt, Thomas and Carolyn Wortham, and Pam Montgomery-Bosley. Also participating will be Mary Kay Mace, of Petersburg in southern Illinois, whose 19-year-old daughter Ryanne was killed in a mass shooting at Northern Illinois University in 2008.
The group of mayors that organized the effort said the relatives are an invaluable lobbying tool.
"These families personalize the problem for members of Congress for whom it is otherwise abstract," said Mark Glaze, executive director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. "Mayors get the calls when a police officer is killed in the line of duty or a kid is shot on the playground.
"For members of Congress who don't get those calls, their views are shaped almost entirely by the NRA (National Rifle Association) Washington lobbyists. Attaching American faces to the concept is a very effective way of making them understand this problem," Glaze said.
Montgomery-Bosley will talk about the violence that claimed the life of her son Terrell, 18, in 2006.
"I want them to understand that we have to push for common-sense gun laws and that we have to work together to save our children," Montgomery-Bosley said. "I have two teenage boys left. I can't afford to lose any more children."
Nance-Holt, whose 16-year-old son Blair was killed in 2007, said it would mean a lot to the families if Obama would tell them he's working on something to stop the violence.
"That would go a long way," she said. "But we have to take back our own communities and stop harboring criminals in our neighborhoods. We can't let them sleep and eat in our house when we know that child has done something bad. If the parents don't step up, then maybe this will make the neighbors step up."
Tribune reporter John Byrne contributed.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun