Commentary: At Last, Obama Talks About Gun Violence in Chicago

Many voices in urban America have called on the president to focus his attention to gun violence in their communities.

Posted: 02/15/2013 03:33 PM EST

For some time, years even, activists and others in Chicago have called on President Obama to come to their city and to address head on the issue of gun violence. While the number of murders in Chicago have exceeded 500 deaths in 2012, it is a number that has been growing steadily even before last year.

But now, the president has been compelled by events to take the call for sensible action on gun access to the heart of urban America. And it is not a moment too soon. He made his appeal in a strong and highly personal manner.

“Last year, there were 443 murders with a firearm on the streets of this city, and 65 of those victims were 18 and under,” Obama said. “So that’s the equal of a Newtown every four months," referring to the children killed in the Connecticut mass shooting.

To be sure, the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut shocked the nation as did the killings at a movie theater Colorado. They provided the country with a macabre reminder of the effect of random gun violence when unleashed upon the most unsuspecting of people. After all, the horror of school children being shot multiple times in their own place of learning is too appalling not to have a deeply emotional impact on an entire nation.

But the kind of gun violence that has devastated lives in urban America, in cities like Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans, has come in less media-jolting forms, with little to no widespread coverage. They have unfolded in a pattern of steady, unrelenting incidents: day after day, week by week and month by month. Some of it has come in the form of domestic disputes, some in gang violence and some by random acts of gunfire. For too many Americans, urban gun violence is viewed as part of the price people pay for living in big cities, even for being Black.

But the death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton has changed not just Obama’s attention on the issue, but that of the entire nation when it comes to personalizing America’s crisis of urban gun violence. Hadiya was not just an honor student and a majorette who performed at Obama’s inauguration. She was the kind of cheerful young woman whose promise and joy made her seem like the girl next door to any American.

And so the president has finally taken the crusade to attack gun violence to the crucible of Chicago, addressing the issue in his home town, at a high school not far from the park where Hadiya was killed a week after the inauguration. His language focused on the problem in urban areas, specifically, in Chicago.

Chicago’s more than 500 homicides last year reflected a reality that has become all too common in American cities. More than 400 people lost their lives in homicides in 2012 in Detroit. The St. Louis homicide rate for 2012 stood at 113 victims. There were 193 murders in New Orleans last year and another 97 in Cleveland.

Gun violence is the leading cause of death of African-American males between the ages of 15 and 19. The number of deaths of African-American men in one year far exceeds the number killed by lynching in the first decade of the 20th century.

While these deaths rarely if ever generate news headlines nationally, they are nonetheless part of the wretched American fabric of epidemic violence. Their stories are part of the larger landscape of escalating gun violence and Obama is to be commended for taking up the issue in a setting that at long last focuses the nation’s attention where it has landed far too rarely.

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