Urban voters seek more campaign talk of gun crime
Philadelphia • In a tough Philadelphia neighborhood where an off-duty police officer was shot to death last month, a mother is afraid to walk to the corner store with her two children. In a Chicago area where 23 people have been killed by gunfire so far this year, kids don't want to go outside. In Harlem, a 26-year-old man worries his family will get hit by crossfire.
Residents of inner-city neighborhoods plagued by gun violence say they feel neglected and ignored even in a presidential election year marked by highly publicized shootings at a Colorado movie theater, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and outside the Empire State Building a year in which Republicans have launched a full-throated defense of gun ownership while Democrats have largely kept quiet about an issue they used to put front and center.
"People are being gunned down. Nobody's talking about it. But both parties want our votes," said the Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church in Chicago. Acree lives in the city's Austin neighborhood, where 7-year-old Heaven Sutton was killed by a stray bullet as she was selling snow cones.
Gunfire frequently pierces the neighborhood. Nearly two dozen people have died this year, and children in his congregation are afraid to walk outside. Citywide, homicides are up sharply from 2011, though still way down from their historic highs in the early 1990s.
"It's a state of emergency here in Chicago," Acree said. "We want all hands on deck. That includes the president."
But within the national Democratic Party the traditional home of urban voters like Acree the voices calling for gun control are silent again this year. Jobs and the economy have muted discussion of other issues, while public opinion has swung sharply against restrictions on gun ownership.
Even some urban voters are openly hostile to gun control, viewing it as unilateral disarmament, and a steep long-term decline in violent crime has removed some of the impetus for action.
President Barack Obama did touch briefly on the gun issue a few days after a man opened fire at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., killing 12 and wounding 58. In a speech to the National Urban League, Obama declared that assault-style weapons like the AK-47 "belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities," and "we should leave no stone unturned" in the effort to keep young people safe.
But his spokesman later said that while Obama wants Congress to reinstitute a federal ban on military-style assault weapons that lapsed in 2004, the president is not pushing for it. And the Democratic Party, which holds its national convention starting Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., is not saying whether it will strengthen its stance on gun controls.
Republicans, meanwhile, strengthened the gun-rights section of their party platform as they met in Tampa, Fla., this week to nominate Mitt Romney for president, endorsing so-called "stand-your-ground" laws and unlimited bullet capacities in guns.
Since the July 20 theater massacre, there have been at least four more high-profile spasms of gun violence in public places: the rampage at a Sikh temple in a Milwaukee suburb, the deadly shooting outside the Empire State Building, a shooting inside a cafeteria on the first day of school near Baltimore, and one at a New Jersey supermarket on Friday that left three people dead, including the gunman who authorities said used a rifle similar to an AK-47.
While those crimes grabbed the headlines, far less visible is the gun violence that continues unabated in some poor urban neighborhoods.
In gritty north Philadelphia, where police Officer Moses Walker was shot to death Aug. 18 while walking home from his shift, residents said they are tired of it tired of the ubiquity of guns, tired of feeling afraid but are not sure whom to blame. Many continue to support Obama but want to see him talking more about gun control.
Keisha Walker, 28, a day care worker and mother of two children, ages 3 and 8, said people can't do simple things like run errands or go to the recreation center.
"It's sad. You can't walk to the corner store," said Walker, who was overseeing kids at a playground. "You limit your kids to the things they can do because of the violence."
Nearby, sitting on her front porch and keeping a close eye on a group of children, 32-year-old Fatima Sutton acknowledged that much of the political emphasis is on jobs but said leaders shouldn't disregard the scourge of gun violence.
Like many here, she favors stricter gun laws. But she's not sure they would make much difference.
"The whole situation is frustrating," said Sutton, a mother of six. "I am at a loss for words."
In the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, Henry Domingo was just as fatalistic. Domingo, 26, said shootings occur so frequently that he often worries about his family getting caught in the crossfire.
"The problem is, it's not controllable," said Domingo, adding his neighborhood is flooded with illegal guns that criminals bring in from Southern states to sell. He said elected officials at any level of government couldn't tame the gun violence if they tried.
"They could be tougher with their gun laws. But to get in control of this? That's not possible," he said. "It's easy to get a gun out here. Very easy."
But Garry McCann, who belongs to the National Rifle Association and owns four permitted guns, said shootings like the one at the Empire State Building wouldn't happen if citizens could more easily protect themselves with legal weapons.
"If I were there, I would've put two bullets in the shooter's head," said McCann, 60, of Manhattan.
He added: "Innocent people are getting killed. I don't know what needs to be done. But taking the guns out of the hands of responsible people like me, that's not the way. Then only the bad guys will be left with guns."
In Colorado, Troy Teeter, a 40-year-old youth pastor who knows some of the young people who witnessed the theater massacre in Aurora, scoffed at the notion that public officials should do anything to prevent gun violence.
"I don't think there's anything that can be done about it. Certainly not by a politician," he said.
His attitude is reflected in polling data that show a decisive shift away from tougher gun laws. According to a 1990 Gallup poll, nearly eight in 10 said laws covering the sale of firearms should be stricter, while 19 percent said they should remain the same or be loosened. Last year, 43 percent favored tighter gun laws, and 55 percent said they should stay the same or be made more lenient.
And voters rank guns as a low priority in the presidential election. An AP-GfK poll of persuadable voters found only one person who called the gun issue the most important in deciding whom to support for president.
While gun control might be a losing issue for Democrats nationally, Acree, the Chicago pastor, said politicians of both stripes need to show more courage.
"This is the civil rights issue of our day and time," said Acree, who works with a coalition of Chicago clergy that has called on Obama to push for a renewed assault-weapons ban. "We cannot ignore our urban violence crisis, in Chicago and in New York and in Detroit."