Clinton campaigns on gun control in Chicago, but for many residents it’s not that simple

Hillary Clinton visits the memorial to children killed by gun violence in Chicago.
Hillary Clinton visits the memorial to children killed by gun violence in Chicago.
Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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Chicago, Illinois

Last month in Chicago 20 people were shot in the course of 21 hours—part of the city’s most violent start to any year since the 1990s.

So when presidential candidates from both parties descended on the city and its suburbs ahead of today’s Illinois primary, it’s no surprise that the issue was on the minds of voters.

Storefronts in Chicago.
Storefronts in Chicago.
Image: Hanna Kozlowska

Residents hoping to limit the tragic influence of guns in the city naturally turn to those calling for more robust gun control: Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Both call for strengthening background checks and closing various loopholes that facilitate unmonitored gun sales.

However, Sanders voted several times in the Senate against the Brady bill, which introduced longer waiting periods to the gun-buying process, and in 2005 voted for a law that protected gun manufacturers from liability for gun deaths.

Attacked by the Clinton campaign, Sanders reversed his position on the liability issue, announcing in January he would support repealing the law he voted for more than a decade ago, provided that small gun shops would remain protected from lawsuits. But during a recent debate, he said that making gun manufacturers liable would “mean the end of the gun industry”—not, in his view, a good thing. The National Rifle Association called the comment “spot-on.”

Standing up for Hillary

“The biggest issue that faces us is gun violence,” saidChicagoan Donna Miller, a local Planned Parenthood board member and Hillary Clinton supporter. “She has the best, realistic plan put together.”

“I understand that there are avid hunters in Vermont,” said Neil Winston, an African-American ER doctor who lives in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, referring to Sanders and his vocal defense of the hunting constituency in his home state. “I’m not going to say that Sanders is in the pocket of the NRA or anything like that, but … Hillary Clinton is on the right side of the this issue and I think she is going to stay on the right side of this issue.”

With Sanders dangerously near Clinton in polls in Illinois, the Clinton campaign is hoping to capitalize on her stance on gun control. “In Chicago, it keeps happening. Gun violence killing our kids and no one is stopping it,” a radio ad released Monday (March 14) reminded voters. When visiting Chicago on the eve of election day, Clinton stopped by the Kids Off the Block memorial, dedicated to the child victims of gun violence.

When local Democratic politicians and Illinois representatives in Washington voice their support for Clinton, they all emphasize her tough stance on gun control.

Speaking before Bill Clinton at a get-out-the-vote event last week, Elizabeth Tisdahl, mayor of the suburb of Evanston, which has seen an uptick in shootings, recalled how often she has to attend funerals of shooting victims or make condolence calls. “We cannot have children in Evanston who are afraid to play outside,” she said. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky echoed the sentiment, blasting Sanders’ record.

Finding root causes

But on the South Side of Chicago, a part of town particularly ravaged by shootings (and Barack Obama’s old neighborhood), Clinton is not always the obvious choice. There are other important problems in the poor, predominantly black area that are pushing some to consider Sanders.

Several parishioners at St. Sabina, the home church of well-known anti-gun violence activist pastor Michael Pfleger, told me that jobs and education are by far the most important issue when they go to vote on March 15.

“Everything is collapsing in this country,” said Sally, a churchgoer who did not want to give her surname. She wants better jobs and education for her children and grandchildren, and is voting for Sanders. Linda O’Neal, a cashier, was still making up her mind on Sunday, but has the same priorities.

The church’s pastor, Father Pfleger, said those three issues are inherently connected. “The main root [of gun violence in the neighborhood] is three things: unemployment, proliferation of guns, and poor education. I think that the system has failed, the communities have a sense of hopelessness,” he told Quartz.

Pfleger is a white preacher in the largely black parish, and one of the city’s best known anti-gun violence activists. During mass, he wears a necklace of black and white beads anchored by a large peace sign pendant. His work and fiery sermons were an inspiration for Spike Lee, who included a Pfleger-like character in“Chi-Raq,” his recent movie about the gun epidemic in the city. He called the NRA “selfish, money-hungry, evil folks,” but he said he would not publicly endorse a candidate.

Pfleger will be driving up and down the neighborhood calling on people to vote on primary day.
Pfleger will be driving up and down the neighborhood calling on people to vote on primary day.
Image: Hanna Kozlowska

He did confirm that he would be voting for Bernie Sanders. “They are sounding more alike [on guns] right now,” he said.

He agrees with Clinton’s call to make gun manufacturers liable, and in an ideal world, he’d have guns titled like cars, he said, putting the responsibility for a crime on anyone who has the legal title to a weapon. But like his parishioners, he said “that in communities where there is double digit unemployment, underfunded schools, lack of economic development, highest foreclosures, highest abandoned buildings, guns are just one of the issues,” which is why he aligns himself more with Sanders’ “aggressively progressive” agenda.

For the purposes of the presidential election, gun violence is a politically salient issue in Chicago. But ultimately the city is just another campaign stop. “Until America is so wounded by gun violence in the white and wealthy communities, till that happens and people start voting out politicians who are owned and bought by the NRA, it’s not going to change,” Pfleger said.