CHICAGO — First lady Michelle Obama made a deeply personal entrance into the gun debate Wednesday, the eve of a showdown in Congress, by comparing herself to the honor student from her hometown shot to death a week after performing as a majorette in the presidential inaugural parade.

Mrs. Obama told a conference on youth violence that the new gun regulations her husband proposed in response to Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting deserve a vote in Congress. But she says reducing daily gun deaths in places like Chicago, with its 500 homicides last year, also will require an intensive effort by community leaders.

As part of a rare foray into a policy debate, Mrs. Obama highlighted the case of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, shot in the back Jan. 29 while hanging out with friends at a park, about a mile from the Obamas' South Side home. Mrs. Obama attended Pendleton's funeral and said she was struck by how familiar the Pendleton family seemed to her own.

"Hadiya Pendleton was me and I was her," Mrs. Obama said. "But I got to grow up and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine."

Mrs. Obama said the only difference between herself and the young people killed on the Chicago streets is that she had a few more advantages – involved adults, good schools, a supportive community and a safe neighborhood.

"That was the difference between growing up and becoming a lawyer, a mother and first lady of the United States and being shot dead at the age of 15," Mrs. Obama said, her voice gripped with emotion.

The speech was Mrs. Obama's first public remarks on gun violence since the Sandy Hook shooting in December took the lives of 20 students and six faculty and reignited a national debate over gun control. With the fate of the administration's efforts still uncertain, the White House was mounting an all-hands-on-deck push this week to keep the public engaged.

The president delivered a speech Monday in Connecticut, and 12 family members of Sandy Hook victims joined him on the return flight to Washington and have since been lobbying members of Congress. Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder promoted gun legislation Tuesday at the White House, and Biden was set to make the case again Thursday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

The Senate was planning an initial vote Thursday to begin debating gun legislation, with some Republicans attempting to block consideration of the measure. Two pivotal senators announced a bipartisan deal Wednesday to expand background checks to more gun sales, which could build support for President Barack Obama's drive to tighten firearms laws. But the legislation faces strong opposition from the National Rifle Association and lawmakers who say it would violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

"Right now, my husband is fighting as hard as he can and engaging as many people as he can to pass common sense reforms to protect our children from gun violence," Mrs. Obama said to applause. "And these reforms deserve a vote in Congress."

Mrs. Obama was addressing Chicago business and community leaders at a luncheon hosted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, her husband's former chief of staff, who is trying to raise money to fund programs for at-risk youth.

Among those in the audience was Hall of Fame basketball player Isiah Thomas, raised in Chicago public housing. Thomas said the youth basketball leagues he participates in are critical to reducing violence.

"It's hard to kill somebody that you play with every day," Thomas said.

After her speech, Mrs. Obama visited Harper High School in the violent, gang-plagued community of Englewood. Harper was recently featured in a public radio documentary on "This American Life," which reported that more than two dozen current and former students were shot – eight of them fatally – in the last year alone.

"There isn't much distance between me and you," Mrs. Obama told the students. She encouraged them to take their education seriously.

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Pickler reported from Washington.

Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler

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  • A Chicago police officer picks through debris at the crime scene early Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, where a number of people, including a 3-year-old child, were shot Thursday night in a city park in Chicago. Thursday night's attack was the latest violence in a city that has struggled to stop such shootings by increasing police patrols. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

  • In this Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, photo, a women becomes emotional near the scene of a shooting at Cornell Square Park in Chicago's Back of the Yard neighborhood that left multiple victims including a 3-year-old boy. (AP Photo/Sun-Times Media, Chandler West)

  • Protestors stage a sit-in following a march in the Loop to call attention to the high number of homicides against young people in the city on July 27, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago had more than 500 homicides last year, more than any other city in the nation. Black men in their teens and twenties made up the largest group of homicide victims in the city. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Protestors march through the Loop to call attention to the high number of homicides against young people in the city on July 27, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago had more than 500 homicides last year, more than any other city in the nation. Black men in their teens and twenties made up the largest group of homicide victims in the city. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Robert Williams leaves a message at a makeshift memorial where his friend 18-year-old Kenneth Barbour was shot and killed Friday on August 12, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. In another violent weekend Chicago saw more than 30 people shot from Friday through Sunday evening including several teenagers and a four-year-old girl. Four of those shooting victims died including two of the teenagers. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Liquor and lemonade bottles help to form a makeshift memorial where18-year-old Antonio Alves was shot and killed Saturday on August 12, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. In another violent weekend Chicago saw more than 30 people shot from Friday through Sunday evening including several teenagers and a four-year-old girl. Four of those shooting victims died including two of the teenagers. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Crime scene tape spills out of a trash can near where Alexander Mayo was shot and killed in front of the shuttered Henson elementary school on July 22, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Mayo was killed on Thursday before the start of a violent weekend in Chicago which saw at least 6 people killed and 22 wounded in gun violence. Henson was one of more than 50 schools closed in the city in June. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Anthony (no last name available) lights a candle a memorial for his friend Eugene Clark, 25, who was shot and killed Saturday, on July 22, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. In another violent weekend, Chicago had at least 6 people killed and 22 wounded by gunfire. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Men look at a memorial for 20-year-old Carlos Barron which was painted on the sidewalk where he was shot in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on July 22, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Barron, who was killed Friday night, was one of at least six people who were killed in weekend shootings in Chicago, at least another 22 were wounded by gunfire. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • A memorial is attached to a fence at the edge of a gas station lot where Eugene Clark was shot and killed on July 22, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Clark was gunned down on July 20 during a violent weekend in Chicago which saw at least 6 people killed and 22 wounded by gun violence. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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  • Ashley Johnson signs a makeshift memorial at the site where her childhood friend Ashley Hardmon was shot and killed on July 4, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Hardmon, 19, was killed after being struck in the head by a bullet when two men opened fire on her and a group of friends on July 2. A couple of hours later and a few of blocks away 14-year-old Damani Hernard was shot and killed while riding his bike. Over the long July 4th weekend more than 50 people have been shot in Chicago, nine fatally. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Fourteen-year-old Shyiem Wesley (L), with his mother Keshia Paige add to a makeshift memorial at the site where his cousin, who he also describes as his best friend, 14-year-old Damani Hernard was shot and killed July 4, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Hernard was killed early Wednesday morning while riding his bike past a church on his way home from a friend's house. A couple of hours earlier and a few of blocks away 19-year-old Ashley Hardmon was shot and killed when gunmen opened fire on her and some friends. Over the long July 4th weekend more than 50 people have been shot in Chicago, nine fatally. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Fourteen-year-old Shyiem Wesley (C), with his mother Keshia Paige and father Dwight Wesley, view a makeshift memorial at the site where his cousin, who he also describes as his best friend, 14-year-old Damani Hernard was shot and killed July 4, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Hernard was killed early Wednesday morning while riding his bike past a church on his way home from a friend's house. A couple of hours earlier and a few of blocks away 19-year-old Ashley Hardmon was shot and killed when gunmen opened fire on her and some friends. Over the long July 4th weekend more than 50 people have been shot in Chicago, nine fatally. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Rash of Violence Plagues Weekend

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  • A police officer guards a crime scene where seven people were shot on July 6, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Two days earlier and half of a block away Steve Mabins, 21, was shot and killed on his way to an Independence Day party. More than 60 people have been shot in Chicago since Wednesday, at least nine fatally. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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  • An ambulance leaves a crime scene where seven people were shot on July 6, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Two days earlier and half of a block away Steve Mabins, 21, was shot and killed on his way to an Independence Day party. More than 60 people have been shot in Chicago since Wednesday, at least nine fatally. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • A police officer guards a crime scene where seven people were shot on July 6, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Beyond the police officer a flag flies upside down, officially recognized as a symbol of severe distress, at a makeshift memorial on the site where Steve Mabins, 21, was shot and killed two days earlier. More than 60 people have been shot in Chicago since Wednesday, at least nine fatally. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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