12/21/2012 09:58 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Gun Control Slowly Emerges As Defining Issue in Chicago Congressional Race

Illinois State State Sen. Donne Trotter speaks to the media as he leaves a Cook County Courthouse with his attorney Tom Durki
Illinois State State Sen. Donne Trotter speaks to the media as he leaves a Cook County Courthouse with his attorney Tom Durkin, left, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012 in Chicago. The veteran Illinois state senator did not address his legal woes but said he's the right person to fill Jesse Jackson Jr.'s seat in Congress. Trotter was charged Dec. 6, 2012 with a felony count for allegedly trying to board a flight at O'Hare International Airport with a weapon and ammunition in a carry-on bag. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

On Saturday, just one day after a gunman invaded a small-town Connecticut school, the 16 candidates vying to replace Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and represent a district including Chicago's South Side, an area ravaged by gun violence, convened for what amounted to a four-hour political tryout.

The forum, organized by the Cook County Democratic Party, was supposed to give party leaders a chance to inspect the crowded field of candidates, assess their grasp of the district’s issues and narrow the slate competing for the Congressional seat that opened after Jackson resigned in late November. The district includes so few Republican voters that ballots cast in the Feb. 26 special election will likely decide who goes to Congress. But in a city where nearly 500 people -- including at least 24 school-aged kids -- have died in shooting incidents this year and 22 people were injured just last weekend, party leaders running the political auditions brought up guns just once, the Daily Beast reported. One party official made a joking reference to State Sen. Donne Trotter's early December arrest at O’Hare International Airport for carrying an unregistered handgun. Trotter is one of the candidates who wants Jackson's old seat.

But that was last week.

This week, one Democrat vying for the seat issued a statement endorsing a number of gun-control measures and called on her opponents to pledge support for the same ideas. Other Democrats in the race with a history of taking positions against gun control and for expanded gun rights have now been forced to explain their positions. The short special-election campaign season in Chicago also comes at a time when a federal court ordered the state’s lawmakers to rewrite Illinois gun laws in a way that would give legal gun owners the ability to carry a concealed weapon in public by the middle of next year. In the crowded Illinois 2nd Congressional District race, gun control seems poised to become a decisive issue.

“Guns are going to be part of the discussion,” said Kevin Lampe, a Chicago-based political consultant and analyst. “I think it’s an issue that’s at the foremost of all the candidates' minds and certainly many given what’s going on, not just around the country but the degree of violence in the neighborhoods that make up the 2nd District. I would say any candidate who isn’t thinking about it had better start.”

Lampe, who is not working for any of the candidates in the 2nd District race, helped to shepherd Jackson’s last campaign. During the primary election, the Jackson campaign put an ad on the air featuring a mother whose son was killed in a Chicago shooting. The ad helped Jackson win the primary with a little over 65 percent of the vote, Lampe said.

The February special election to replace Jackson will come after a short campaign season, the mass murders in Connecticut and renewed calls by President Barack Obama and his former chief of staff, now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to consider gun-control legislation. Like all special elections, the February contest will likely draw only the most die-hard, passionate party faithful -- in this case Democrats who proudly identify as liberals -- to the polls, Lampe said. That adds up to a race where candidates will not be able to evade questions about guns, he said. And, they may be forced to take strong positions on gun control to even have a fighting chance.

On Wednesday, former state Rep. Robin Kelly, a candidate hoping to fill the 2nd District seat, issued a statement calling for her opponents to agree to endorse gun-control measures and to refuse support from organizations that “oppose reasonable gun safety legislation.”

The National Rifle Association, one of the nation’s most powerful gun-rights advocacy organizations, gave Kelly a lifetime “F” rating in 2006. Kelly did not respond to requests for comment.

Trotter, the candidate facing felony gun charges, received a "D" lifetime rating from the NRA. He too did not respond to a request for comment.

State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, another candidate, has voted in favor of the NRA’s position on various gun measures that have come before state lawmakers more than 90 percent of the time, earning an "A" rating from the organization this year. But Hutchinson told Roll Call this week that while she stands firm on the rights of hunters, she has always supported an assault weapons ban as well as a plan to outlaw high-capacity ammunition magazines. Yet another candidate with a top NRA rating, former Congresswoman Deborah Halvorson, said this week that she may be willing to consider an assault weapons ban.

Hutchinson did not respond to a request for comment. Halvorson could not be reached.

Almost no one in Chicago would be happier than Father Michael Pfleger if guns and gun violence became a defining feature of the February special election. Three years ago, Pfleger, the long-serving pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church in a crime-plagued section of Chicago’s south side, noticed something new at a few high school graduations: a tribute, a moment of silence or a reading of the names of students lost to gun violence.

This year, for the first time since Pflager began serving the mostly black and poor congregation at St. Sebina in 1975, every single graduation he attended included some kind of remembrance for students who began high school with the graduating class but died in a shooting incident somewhere along the way.

“I thought, 'This is the norm now?'” said Pfleger. “I knew that we had reached the point where the new landmarks of our communities are not buildings. They are yellow [crime scene] tape and teddy bears where someone was shot and killed. But now what should be this happy rite of passage has also been transformed. The situation in parts of this city is sad and sick beyond measure and should not be ignored.”

Pfleger isn’t just a passive observer. He regularly meets with city, state and federal lawmakers, and law enforcement officials such as Attorney General Eric Holder. He also helped to organize a group that aids parents who have lost children to Chicago’s gun violence to lobby Congress, process their grief and sometimes simply cover the unexpected cost of burying a child.

Right now, illegal guns can be purchased on the street in Chicago for as little as $20, he said.

Source: Project Vote Smart, Graphic by: Chris Spurlock