In hometown visit, Obama advocates 'common sense' approach to guns

President Obama speaks about strengthening the middle class and the nation's struggle with gun violence at Hyde Park Academy in Chicago on Friday.

M. Spencer Green/AP

President Obama speaks about strengthening the middle class and the nation's struggle with gun violence at Hyde Park Academy in Chicago on Friday.

"It's good to be home," President Obama said to a crowd, including uniformed high school students, at Chicago's Hyde Park Academy on Friday.

The school is in the same neighborhood where the Obamas raised their children, but the topic of the president's visit was raising Chicago's children — and the nation's. The president returned to his hometown to address the scourge of gun violence that's plaguing the city and many other parts of the country.

At the White Hosue earlier in the day, Obama honored 13 civilians with the Presidential Citizens Medal. Six of the citations, read by a military aide, were for the principal and teachers killed in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"Some had been at Sandy Hook Elementary School for only weeks," the president said. "Others were preparing to retire after decades of service. All worked long past the school bell to give the children in their care a future worth their talents."

While the massacre at the Newtown, Conn., school put the issue of gun violence back in the spotlight, the president tried to also draw attention to killings that didn't make the headlines. He noted that Chicago had 443 firearm murders last year; five of the victims were 18 or younger.

"So that's the equivalent of a Newtown every four months," he said, "and that's precisely why the overwhelming majority of Americans are asking for some common-sense proposals to make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun."

The White House is pushing for universal background checks and other measures. But speaking in the South Side neighborhood where a 15-year-old was shot to death just days after she was in Washington for his inauguration, Obama seemed more focused on the social climate where that kind of violence has become a daily occurrence.

"When a child opens fire on another child, there's a hole in that child's heart that government can't fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole," he said.

The president praised the "heroic" efforts of many single mothers, including his own. He said young men in particular need some stronger male role models and that he wished his own father had been around and involved.

Obama has pledged to adjust government policies to encourage more active fathers. Where they're missing, he said, communities have to fill the void. The president himself held a longer-than-scheduled meeting Friday with a group of young men enrolled in an anti-violence mentoring program. He acknowledged some of the participants had "issues" in their past.

"What I explained to them was I had issues too when I was their age," he said. "I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving, so when I screwed up, the consequences weren't as high as when kids on the South Side screw up."

The president told the young men that changing their behavior will take hard work and a vision of where they want to go. He added that's true for the country, too.

"We may not be able to save every child from gun violence, but if we save a few, that starts changing the atmosphere in our communities," the president said. "We may not be able to get everybody a job right away, but if we get a few folks a job, then everybody starts feeling a little more hopeful and a little more encouraged."

On this day, the president sounded more like the community organizer he once was. Perfection has never been our goal, he said, promising instead that change will come block by block and one family at a time.

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