First lady throws herself into gun control debate

Michelle Obama is making a rare foray into a controversial political issue by getting personally involved in the gun control debate — just as it appears set to dominate the Senate.

The first lady will return to her hometown of Chicago on Wednesday for an event with Mayor Rahm Emanuel to speak about gun control, casting her in a leading role to push one of her husband’s top priorities.

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The Senate is poised on Thursday to begin its debate on gun control. The first lady’s speech is part of a White House effort to pressure the Senate to pass legislation that would include tougher background checks on gun purchases — a provision that looks to be in trouble.

Obama has been an active and effective campaigner for the president, repeatedly addressing crowds last year to make the case for why her husband deserved a second term.

She has not been active in publicly pressing Congress or the public on divisive political issues, however, and like many first ladies has shied away from direct contact with lawmakers on policy.

Her main focus in the White House has been on combating childhood obesity, but she has never testified before Congress — not even when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, part of her signature campaign, was up for debate.


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The first lady’s office characterized Obama’s Wednesday remarks as a “deeply personal speech.”

She will be addressing gun control in a city notorious for its murder rate. Chicago, where Obama grew up, attended school, met her husband and worked before moving to Washington, saw more than 500 murders in 2012.

The January shooting of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was killed shortly after she performed at the inauguration ceremony, caused an outrage and touched the president and first lady, who attended Pendelton’s funeral.

The Obamas’ oldest daughter will turn 15 this summer. Both daughters went to school in Chicago until their father was elected. President Obama mentioned Pendleton’s death in his State of the Union address, which was attended by her parents.

The White House said the first lady will speak as “a mother” during her address on Wednesday, and said it expects Obama’s speech to resonate powerfully in a country where a disproportionate number of children killed in gun incidents are black.

Eight children were killed each day in 2011 by gun violence, half of whom were black, according to a 2012 report from the Children’s Defense Fund. The report also found gun violence is the leading cause of death among black teens ages 15 to 19.

After her speech, Obama will visit Harper High School, a prominently black public school on the South Side that was the subject of a two-part series on “This American Life” about gun violence. In 2012, 29 students from the school were victims of gun violence.

It is unclear whether Wednesday’s speech is a sign the first lady will become more active on gun control or other specific political issues going forward.

An official with Emanuel’s office told The Hill that Obama’s office contacted them to see how she could help combat violence and contribute to youth empowerment programs.

The official, who said Obama will talk about her youth in Chicago, did not rule out the possibility the first lady will do similar events.

The White House is staying mum on Obama’s expanded role.

When asked about it at a press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: “I think it’s important to wait and listen to what the first lady will say.”

He added that “the legislative effort, the working with Congress, the political effort, if you will, is being undertaken and led by the president.”
Ohio University Professor Katherine Jellison, an expert on first ladies, said Obama’s speech “could have real resonance” as the gun debate continues.

“This may become a moment that can’t be ignored,” she said.

She pointed out the speech Obama gave to the Democratic National Convention in August, which electrified the crowd of delegates who were there to nominate her husband.

“They weren’t all that fired up until she got up,” Jellison said. “Maybe she can do it again this time.”

Daniel Strauss contributed