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Chicago Tribune - Obama attacks violence in Chicago

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Chicago Tribune - Obama attacks violence in Chicago

By John McCormick

Speaking to a Sunday congregation in Chicago, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama used often-fiery rhetoric to mourn the city's recent spate of gun violence and challenged the government, the gun lobby and the public to do more to stop it.

"Our playgrounds have become battlegrounds. Our streets have become cemeteries. Our schools have become places to mourn the ones we've lost," Obama told a standing-room-only congregation at Vernon Park Church of God on Chicago's Far South Side.

The Illinois Democrat recounted how 32 Chicago public schoolchildren were killed during the last school year, and noted that two more teens were shot in the past week in a South Side schoolyard.

"The violence is unacceptable, and it's got to stop," he said.

Obama called for better enforcement of existing gun laws, tighter background checks on gun buyers and for making an expired assault weapon ban permanent.

"A couple weeks ago, cops found an AK-47 near a West Side school," he said. "That type of weapon belongs on a battlefield, not on the streets of Chicago."

But Obama said the "power of the gun lobby in Washington" has blocked tougher gun laws and enforcement.

"If you want to go hunt, go hunt. Nobody is trying to take your shotgun or rifle away," he said. "But when you've got the gun lobbying saying that we can't use ballistics to trace back where guns came from ... then it is time for us to stand up to the gun lobby and say enough. It is time for a change in Washington."

Later in a brief meeting with reporters, Obama said he suspects the majority of National Rifle Association members are not opposed to some tighter restrictions.

"I believe that the majority of NRA members would not object to doing a background check from a bullet that has been used to kill a child on the South Side of Chicago, or the West Side, and find out who sold that gun," he said. "That's a law that's already in the books. The problem is that we're not enforcing it."

Obama also told reporters that he has never hunted, although he has fired a gun on a firing range.

"That wasn't part of my growing up, but I am sympathetic, as I say, to the fact that if you go down to Downstate Illinois, that's an important part of the culture there and people use guns responsibly in those situations."

Throughout his 25-minute message to church members, Obama mixed policy proposals with his personal experiences as a black man growing up and as a father of two young daughters.

"I cannot imagine not having them with me," he said. "I know that these children who have been killed are in a better place, but I cannot imagine what the parents must be going through."

At one point, Obama asked Joyce Mitchell, the grandmother of one of the victims, to stand up and be recognized by the congregation.

As he has in other speeches, Obama called on parents, especially black fathers, to play a greater role in raising their children.

"There's a reason they go out and shoot each other," he said. "It's because they don't love themselves. And the reason they don't love themselves is that we are not loving them enough."

Besides the relatives of the victims, Obama said Chicago schools are being forced to confront the deaths in often-stark ways.

"In Room 104 at Avalon Park Elementary School, an empty chair is pushed against the wall in memory of Quinton Jackson, the 8th grader who used to sit there, and who was stabbed to death a few months ago," he said.

In another classroom, he said, the experience was equally troubling.

"In one Chicago public school, a teacher was calling attendance and when she got to the name of a particular student who wasn't there and had missed a lot of classes, she asked if anyone knew where he was," Obama said. "And the answer she got was, 'He's dead.'"

Obama, who was often interrupted by audience members saying "amen" and one man who said "Speak to me, Mr. President," said Chicago is not alone in feeling the pain of gun violence.

"From South Central L.A., to Newark, New Jersey, there's an epidemic of violence that's sickening the soul of this nation," he said.

Also in attendance at the service was Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Chicago colleague whom Obama said often writes some of his best lines. "My best lines on TV, Jesse wrote them," he said.

This afternoon, Obama also appeared with other Democratic presidential candidates at the American Association for Justice annual convention in Chicago.

The church appearance was not far from the neighborhood where Obama once worked as a community organizer. His Senate office, not his presidential campaign, organized the event.


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