President Barack Obama returned to Chicago for a few hours Friday to address the high-profile gun violence that continues to plague his hometown and suggested the solution is not only more gun laws, but community intervention and economic opportunity in impoverished neighborhoods.
The president didn't delve into his specific call for an assault weapons ban and other gun control measures, instead choosing to illustrate Chicago's plight by comparing it to the December elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were shot.
"There was something profound and uniquely heartbreaking and tragic, obviously, about a group of 6-year-olds being killed," Obama told an audience in the gymnasium of Hyde Park Academy High School, less than a mile from his home. "But last year, there were 443 murders with a firearm on the streets of this city, and 65 of those victims were 18 and under. So that's the equivalent of a Newtown every four months."
Obama was introduced by his former White House chief of staff, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has been struggling to get a grip on the violence that threatens to define his first term in office. Homicides and shootings both were up by double-digit percentages last year, and last month marked the city's most violent January since 2002.
The president's visit brought a national and international spotlight on Chicago's gun violence. Emanuel sought to make the case Chicago's struggles aren't particular to this city.
"Like every major city in the country, Chicago faces two critical challenges: the strength of our schools and the safety of our streets. Our streets will only be as safe as our schools are strong and our families are sound," Emanuel said.
But the president brought the violence issue back to the city's streets, talking about the impact the shooting death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton has had on him and first lady Michelle Obama, who attended the band majorette's funeral last weekend. Hadiya was shot in Harsh Park in North Kenwood after returning from Chicago from inauguration weekend festivities.
The teen's mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, joined the 700 or so students, politicians and religious leaders in the audience, sitting with a group of other mothers of slain children.
"We need to do whatever we can to make sure there is no easy access to guns by people who are not supposed to have them," she said.
The president, a former Illinois state senator, nodded to the difficulty in getting gun control legislation passed at the state level, while making the case for a vote on a federal gun control package. "The experience in gun ownership is different in urban areas than it is in rural areas, different from upstate and downstate Illinois," he said. "But these proposals deserve a vote in Congress. They deserve a vote."
But Obama also acknowledged that "no law or set of laws can prevent every senseless act of violence."
"When a child opens fire on another child, there's a hole in that child's heart that government can't fill — only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole," he said.
Part of the solution, the president said, is to improve the economy and build the middle class, themes from Tuesday's State of the Union address. Obama spent the remainder of his 25-minute speech here making the case for early childhood education, targeted development in blighted areas and better job opportunities as a way to strengthen families and ultimately deter people from violence.
"If a child grows up with parents who have work, and have some education, and can be role models, and can teach integrity and responsibility, and discipline and delayed gratification — all those things give a child the kind of foundation that allows them to say, 'my future, I can make it what I want,'" he said.
The Chicago speech was billed by the White House as one of several stops the president is making to press for the economic package outlined in his State of the Union speech. But the crowd was packed with gun control advocates.
The Rev. Michael Pfleger, a longtime supporter of stronger firearms laws, said Obama's appearance is not an embarrassment for Emanuel. "Nobody asked that when the president went to Tucson" after a gunman wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and killed six others, Pfleger said.
Rather, Pfleger said he expects the president's speech will mark the beginning of a new federal focus on urban violence. "It's not to embarrass anybody, it's just to help us deal with an issue that needs White House administration, Justice Department, Education Department, all the way down to the parent on the street," Pfleger said.
"When he comes, his administration comes behind him," Pfleger said. "So all of a sudden, if coming out of this becomes not only the focus on urban America, this has not been done before," Pfleger said. "This is saying we're recognizing in America what we've been ignoring for a long time. The primary victim of violence in this country has been black and brown ... so now (Obama) is putting the attention on it."
Obama was scheduled to take the stage at 2:40 p.m., but didn't begin his speech till about 3:30 p.m. During the delay, federal charges were announced against former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. — a co-chairman of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and an early key supporter of his 2004 U.S. Senate bid — and Jackson's wife, former 7th Ward Ald. Sandi Jackson.
Before taking the stage, Obama met for more than an hour with a group of students involved in a youth mentoring program at the school called Becoming A Man, run by Youth Guidance.
"He told us there are other ways to deal with anger than picking up a gun," said Trai Germain, 17, who added that anger is the primary reason for the violence. "They are angry because they are struggling every day and waking up and not having anything."
Devon Lowery, 18, a senior at the school, said he was unaware that Obama, like himself, was raised by a single mother and barely knew his father.
"I thought about my own father," Lowery said. "He left me when I was 5, and now he is trying to be back in my life. But it's too late. I'm grown now."
Tribune reporter Monique Garcia and Tribune Newspapers Washington correspondent Kathleen Hennessey contributed.