CHICAGO -- President Obama returned home Friday to a city shaken by the gun violence he has sworn to curb, delivering a call to “fill the hole” in the hearts of troubled young people and work together to lift communities out of poverty.
Although Obama is pushing a slate of gun control measures in Congress, he made few references to his legislative goals as he spoke to an audience at a Chicago South Side high school. Instead, he focused heavily on the role of communities and parenting in preventing violence.
“For a lot of young boys and young men in particular, they don’t see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up in respect,” Obama said. “And so that means that this is not just a gun issue; it’s also an issue of the kinds of communities that we’re building.
“When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.”
Obama arrived in Chicago after weeks of not inserting himself into the scourge of violent crime in his hometown, a city now run by his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. In recent weeks, many here have called on him to come to Chicago to speak about gun-related violence, much as he did in Newtown, Conn., after the elementary school massacre there. The pressure mounted after the death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot and killed shortly after returning home from his inaugural celebrations in Washington.
Obama responded Friday by declaring that “what happened to Hadiya is not unique.”
“It’s not unique to Chicago. It’s not unique to this country. Too many of our children are being taken away from us,” Obama said. “There was something profound and uniquely heartbreaking and tragic, obviously, about a group of 6-year-olds being killed. 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.”
The high school gym in which he spoke is in a neighborhood loaded with symbolic resonance and personal history. Hyde Park Academy is in the neighborhood the president represented as a state senator less than a decade ago. It is only a few miles from the stately home he still owns but rarely visits, and is less than a mile from where Pendleton was killed.
Before the speech, Obama met with a group of African American teenagers involved in an anti-violence program, singling them out later and saying that he could relate to their experience.
He noted that he, too, had gotten into trouble as a teenager. “I wish I had had a father who was around and involved,” he said.
“I had issues too when I was their age. I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving. I had more of a safety net. But you guys are no different than me.”