JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama wrapped up his State of the Union — post-State of the Union tour with a visit to his hometown today.
Margaret Warner has the story.
MARGARET WARNER: The president’s trip to Chicago came amid the country’s new focus on gun violence. And while he was there to talk about raising the minimum wage and expanding preschool for children, the city’s surge of gun killings wasn’t far from his mind.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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. And that’s precisely why the overwhelming majority of Americans are asking for some commonsense proposals to make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun.
MARGARET WARNER: Those 443 shooting deaths were among more than 500 homicides in Chicago last year. And last month, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who had just performed during President Obama’s inauguration festivities in Washington, was shot dead about a mile from the first family’s Chicago home.
First lady Michelle Obama attended her funeral last weekend, and the president highlighted her death in his appeal for new gun law in Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: They deserve a vote.
Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.
The families of Newtown deserve a vote.
MAN: On December 14, 2012, unthinkable tragedy swept through Newtown.
MARGARET WARNER: Echoes of the mass shootings in Newtown also hung over a morning ceremony at the White House today, as Mr. Obama awarded Presidential Citizens Medals. Six of the 18 recipients were educators who died trying to protect students at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
And to help put this in focus, we are joined now by Lynn Sweet. She’s a columnist and Washington bureau chief for The Chicago Sun-Times, and has reported from both cities for decades.
And, Lynn, welcome back.
Watching this event today, it seemed a very personal one for President Obama.
LYNN SWEET, The Chicago Sun-Times: Margaret, absolutely.
This was in the city that spawned his political career, and launched specifically in the neighborhood where he lived, where he worked. He taught at the University of Chicago. He was a state senator from that area. If we were there, we could walk to his house from the school in a short time. We could a few minutes later go to the park where the girl was murdered.
Mrs. Obama grew up not far from where he spoke. And Mrs. Obama is a true South Sider. She calls herself that. He talks about — he talked about that at the school. And, you know, in Chicago, when you say you are a South Sider, that is something you say with an enormous amount of pride.
So by — Obama, by identifying with the neighborhood of which he adopted when he came to the city twice, first as a community organizer, maybe by chance, and then by choice after Harvard Law School, he knew this was his home and his speech reflected that.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, how — and how did coming to Chicago, how did today’s event, how did the example of Hadiya Pendleton, how does that fit into his overall strategy for pushing for changes in the gun laws?
LYNN SWEET: Well, I think it works because if you — I think there is a belief among the Obama team that if you make it personal, you could go over the heads of the members of Congress. You could try to dilute the Second Amendment argument to say, no, this isn’t about anyone trying to take your rights away. It is about saying that if you sign a piece of paper saying that you are buying a gun, you’re the one buying a gun, and you’re not going to be a fence or a straw purchaser.
I think what they are trying to do is to change the conversation. In an event like this today that was so heartfelt — I mean, just think of what a week this has been for the Obamas, Mrs. Obama in Chicago, about a week ago, a week tomorrow, the parents, what — up and down, your heart goes out to them.
LYNN SWEET: This is a very unique circumstance for a president to be in. But I think he embraced it starting with Mrs. Obama not running away from it. The city has been calling on him to come home for years.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, it’s also interesting because it focused on not mass shootings, as we have seen a lot of focus on, but these individual, often random killings.
I understand that Chicago actually has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation. So how does what the president is pushing, how would that affect the situation in a city like Chicago?
LYNN SWEET: It will show that you cannot make laws in — cities are not islands. That’s what — what happens in Chicago dramatically shows.
Now, back in the day, Mayor Daley, now the former Mayor Daley, was a pioneer. Some of the suburbs around Chicago were the first to have bans. But it just doesn’t work that way. There is a gun store in one of the suburbs that accounts for a stream of sales. What this dramatizes, from the Obama perspective, is the need for national laws to address the problem.
MARGARET WARNER: Because all these guns — all these guns flow in.
So where do the president’s strategists think on the Hill now, his push — he kept saying — he said again today, as he said Tuesday night, they deserve a vote, they deserve a vote, speaking of the victims. How close do they think they are of getting a vote, and if so when?
LYNN SWEET: Well, Sen. Patrick Leahy, who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, by mid-March hopes to have his proposals all put in legislative form.
The strategic decision here, Margaret, is whether or not in this case they bundle the four major together — we can get into them if you want — or if they roll them out in piecemeal. Oftentimes, in legislation, it is to the advantage to bundle things together, leverage and bargain.
In this case, each of the stand-alone pieces have a different storyline behind them. So I think they will go separately because there is different coalitions around them. That’s why we — I believe we will see votes. When Obama says, by the way, as he implored today and at the State of the Union they deserve a vote, part of this is — could be seen also as an American civics lesson, because most bills don’t automatically get a vote.
So what Obama was calling for is something that is not the norm in the way they work.
MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, what piece, if it goes individually by issue, do they think they have the best shot at right now?
LYNN SWEET: I think the best one is background checks, because we already have background checks. It is the most logical one. It’s not Second Amendment-related.
MARGARET WARNER: And extended to private gun sales and gun shows.
LYNN SWEET: If you have to check it — get a check in a store, why not get it if you sell me a gun?
MARGARET WARNER: Yes.
All right, well, Lynn Sweet, thank you so much.
LYNN SWEET: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: On Monday, the NewsHour begins a week’s worth of stories, on air and online, about the issues raised by the shooting in Newtown, Conn. We will look at moves to pass stricter gun laws, mental health concerns, and violent video games, among other things.
Our coverage is part of PBS’ After Newtown Initiative, a series of programs produced by our PBS colleagues to spark a national conversation about gun violence in America. And on our website now, you can find a preview of some of the stories we will be reporting.