As President Obama made his pitch for gun-control legislation Friday in his hometown of Chicago, the death toll in the Windy City continued its ceaseless climb. Chicago had the ignominious distinction of surpassing 500 homicides in 2012, and is on pace to exceed that number in 2013, with at least 50 committed so far in the first two months of the year. On Friday night, four people were shot -- one fatally -- within a 90-minute period in the city.
So it’s no surprise that the opening volley of the gun-control battle might come in the race to replace former Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in a House district that includes the South Side of Chicago. The way in which the crowded field of Democratic candidates have handled the issue in the run-up to the Feb. 26 primary reflect the sharp divisions separating the country on gun control—and the hard realities faced by urban areas that have been losing the fight against gun violence.
The racial contours of the debate and the campaigns are hard to ignore: Of the 441 victims of gun violence in 2012 tracked by RedEye Chicago, 78 percent were black.
(RELATED:A Look at the Homicide Rate in Chicago)
The statistics mirror nationwide trends: Across the country, blacks are six times as likely as whites to be the victim of a homicide and seven times as likely to commit a homicide, although the disproportionate toll everyday gun violence takes on the black community has been largely skated over in a policy debate sparked and dominated by the weapons of mass murder.
In the Democratic primary to replace Jackson, the only candidate to have an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association happens to also be one of the only white contenders in a district that is majority-black: former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, who represented a more conservative district from 2008 to 2010.
While Halvorson supports bolstering background checks, her gun-control message focuses on stricter enforcement of current laws and stiffer penalties for offenders. She’s been steadfast in her opposition to a federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines—two of the White House’s best-known proposals.
“My overall idea is that we want to go after the criminals, not the law-abiding citizens,” Halvorson said, pointing to the fact that strict gun-control measures in place in Cook County, including an assault-weapons ban and strict handgun restrictions, have done little to bring down the murder rate.
Her position has attracted some high-profile attention: Not only have her opponents zeroed in on her NRA rating, but the super PAC of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has poured over $1 million into the race already, assailing Halvorson. On Friday, Bloomberg's PAC endorsed former state representative Robin Kelly, Halvorson's leading opponent. On Twitter, former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt meanwhile weighed in on the race: “Anti-Halvorson spot could show Congress there's as much [money] and [organization] set to be deployed against candidates in NRA's pocket.” Halvorson was a critical ally for the White House as one of the key swing-district Democrats to back the president’s controversial law.
Political observers say that there’s political strategy behind Halvorson’s position on gun control: White suburban voters are a key part of her base and she needs to win them overwhelmingly to prevail in the primary. Given that there are 16 candidates in the race, she only needs to cobble together a slim plurality to emerge as the Democratic nominee—and presumptive House member.
When asked about the lopsided toll gun violence has taken on the black community on Chicago's South Side, Halvorson steered clear of race and instead said she hopes to bring jobs, economic opportunity, and better social services to underserved populations, all of which feeds into Chicago’s violent-crime problem.
“I’m saddened this election has been overshadowed with this one issue,” Halvorson said. “[The other candidates] are just trying to not pay attention to what the issues really are because they wouldn’t hold a candle to me on the real issues.”
Kelly, a former state representative, falls on the other end of the spectrum as a staunch supporter of the gun-control measures championed by Obama, and touts her F rating from the NRA. She attended the State of the Union last week as a guest of Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill. and met with the victims of gun violence in D.C.
But does she think the White House proposals address the problems of urban violence? A recent Congressional Research Service report found that less than 2 percent of gun crimes involve assault weapons.
“It’s a good start but it’s not the end of what we can do,” Kelly said. The comprehensive approach has to include “access to mental health service, jobs and schools and afterschool programs,” Kelly says, “but we just have to get the guns off the streets.”
“I think that people put a face on who’s doing on the killing and who’s getting killed,” Kelly added. “But if you look over the country, in Newtown and Arizona, and Wisconsin and Columbine, they’re not isolated incidents anymore.”
Then there’s Anthony Beale, not considered a top-tier candidate but who, as an alderman on Chicago’s City Council for 13 years, has witnessed the casualties day-in and day-out.
While he supports the White House proposals, he says not enough attention is being paid to the proposals that would crack down on the crime that is commonplace in Chicago: keeping firearms out of the hands of gang members and drug dealers, cracking down on the black market, coming up with a mechanism to better track handguns, and allocating more enforcement resources to the communities with the highest crime rates.
“The fact that crime is up is because we don’t have jobs,” Beale said.
Many of the candidates said it was a shame that it took a shooting at an elementary school to bring attention to the violence that takes the lives of Chicagoans every day.
“We’ve had a Sandy Hook in Chicago ever year when you see the number of kids killed by gun violence, where you’ve had a massacre of children,” Beale said. “All the other candidates have jumped on the bandwagon because now it’s a national issue.”
Asked whether that had anything to do with the race of the majority of the victims in Chicago, Beale answered, “I’m hoping that it doesn’t. Every life is precious, and every child is precious.”