Guns take center stage in 2nd District Congressional race

Candidates stake out positions in wake of South Side teen's shooting death

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By Laurel White

Medill News Service

The issue of gun control and the death of a South Side teen due to gun violence have become campaign issues in the 2nd Congressional District race.

Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl who performed with classmates at President Obama's inauguration, was murdered last week in the South Side Congressional District. The honor student made national headlines when she was shot to death on Jan. 29, about a week after her King College Prep bandmates performed in Washington D.C.

Pendleton was killed in a park located about a mile from the president's Chicago home. At that time, she became the 42nd Chicago homicide victim this year. Gun murders aren't unfamiliar to the 2nd District, which comprises parts of Chicago's South Side and south suburbs.

Candidates for the Feb. 26, special election to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. have stacked out positions on gun control and gun violence. The candidates have also directed attention to one hopeful in particular. Debbie Halvorson has faced attacks concerning her stance on guns, namely her "A" rating from the National Rifle Association and her opposition to a national assault weapons ban.

"It's been very frustrating to watch what's going on," Halvorson said at a Jan. 30 candidate's debate in Olympia Fields. "It's a shame that I'm having to watch a commercial that portrays me as someone that has this "A" from the NRA — a half a million dollar ad buy."

The ad in question is financed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's anti-gun SuperPAC. The ad has run in local markets during morning newscasts.

The attacks have put Halvorson in a difficult political position as she attempts to wrap up the district's rural, white, typically pro-gun vote while balancing the needs of Chicago's South Side communities.

"She's not going to be really pro-gun; she's not going to be anti-gun," said Philip Beverly, professor of political science at Chicago State University. "I would expect in terms of rhetoric that she would be reluctant to impose gun limitations, but would want to approach the problems as public-health problems and focus on things that are universally accepted: universal background checks, closing the gun-show loophole."

At the debate, Halvorson outlined her support of universal background checks, increasing penalties on straw buyers and closing the gun-show loophole. The NRA's "A" rating, she pointed out, came when she was a U.S. representative for Illinois' rural 11th District. Halvorson voted against the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2009, which would allow the concealed carry of weapons.

She remains unchanged on her opposition to a national assault weapons ban.

"Cook County has an assault weapons ban, but yet we have more murders in the city of Chicago than anywhere in the country," she said. "Less than two percent of those murders can be attributed to the assault weapon."

Opponents Robin Kelly and state Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields) continued to position themselves as staunch anti-gun candidates during the debate.

"I am a person that's very proud of my "F" rating from the NRA," Kelly said. "I said that's one "F" that I'm proud of. I don't need to go back and study; I don't need to take the tests over."

Hutchinson drew emotional parallels between the slain Hadiya and her own 14-year-old daughter. She also called attention to the relationship between gun violence, race and impoverished communities.

"There's a different complexion to mass shootings than there is to the violence in urban areas, and we all know it," she said. "There has to be a whole lot more emphasis on giving kids a reason to live instead of not caring whether they die."

An audience of about 100 community members perched on Rich Central High School's bleachers, listening with rapt attention to the candidates' volleys — some with more appreciation than others.

"They were all a little evasive," said audience member Shirley Wilborn of Olympia Fields. "I'm wondering, if they were elected, if they'd really listen to the voice of the people or the lobbyists."

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