Obama on crime: Doing the Willie Horton?

 

WASHINGTON — Few presidential candidates in modern times have been identified with a large urban area likeBarack Obama is with Chicago. And sometimes, that can present a problem.

This election season, for instance, the residents of Obama’s hometown are being murdered at a clip not seen in five years.  

Murders have risen 18 percent over a year ago. Assaults in the city involving guns are also rising. City officials, Police Supt. Jody Weis and the police force are increasingly coming under criticism.

But some Republicans say part of the blame also lies with Obama.

They argue that while serving Illinois as its junior senator and earlier, when the Democratic candidate for president was a state lawmaker, Obama didn’t do enough to make violent crime a priority. Specifically, they point to Obama’s votes over gun legislation and the death penalty.

“Whether it was voting against or voting present on issues related to stricter penalties on offenders of serious crimes or disallowing citizens to exercise their right to self-defense, Obama demonstrated poor judgment on an important issue to his constituents,” said Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

But Obama’s campaign says the link between Obama’s votes and violent crime is specious, and that Obama has actually done more to effectively combat urban violence than his Republican opponent, John McCain, who it says has consistently resisted federal efforts to place more police officers on the streets and voted against banning vest-piercing, or so-called cop-killer, bullets.

“John McCain voted to keep cop-killer bullets on the street and opposed the bipartisan crime bills of the early ’90s that led to the hiring of thousands of police officers and helped communities stay safe—a record that he will have to explain,” said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt.

The infamous “Willie Horton” ad.

One harshly worded ad making the rounds on the Internet—it has been viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube.com—directly ties Obama to the rise in murders across Chicago and says he is partly to blame for the rise in gang violence. It doesn’t come from the RNC, but from Floyd Brown, the man behind the infamous “Willie Horton” ad in 1988 that damaged Michael Dukakis’ presidential hopes.

Critics at the time said the Horton spot—about an African-American inmate who committed a rape on a weekend furlough from prison — played on people’s fears about race and crime. Twenty years later, the racial dynamic remains, but it is the ad’s target who is African-American, being blamed for deaths of victims, the majority of whom also are black.

On Chicago’s gun law

But those who contend that Chicago’s near-absolute ban on handgun ownership has contributed to the city’s recent leap in crime have seized on what they say is Obama’s less-than-clear stance on gun issues. They say that while Obama has recently voiced support for the constitutional right to own handguns for self-defense in the home, a right enumerated by the Supreme Court in June, his legislative record shows more hostility than affirmation to handgun ownership.  

Chicago’s gun ban is now under attack in the courts, even as Mayor Richard Daley has vowed to defend it. Obama has never publicly stated whether he believes the Chicago law is constitutional. His campaign would say only that Obama believes that the “Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own a firearm, and he also believes, as the Supreme Court recognized, that both the federal government and local communities can adopt reasonable safety measures.”

John Lott, a researcher who believes gun bans are an ineffective tool for reducing violent crime, and author of the book “More Guns, Less Crime,” was on the faculty at the University of Chicago when Obama taught constitutional law there. “I know of no time when he spoke out against the Chicago gun ban,” Lott said.

Lott points to Obama’s opposition to a bill the Illinois General Assembly passed in 2004 that shielded homeowners from prosecution for violating a local gun ban if they were defending their homes as evidence that Obama has switched his position. Obama has said he didn’t support the ban because he didn’t believe the state should meddle in local gun laws.

It’s clearer that Obama supports a federal ban on assault weapons. He is also one of a handful of senators to support legislation in Congress, called for by Daley and others, to allow municipalities to receive data from the federal government that traces the flow of high-capacity automatic weapons from gun dealers to the inner cities, something strongly opposed by the gun-rights lobby and the Justice Department.

Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control advocacy group, said giving cities such data will affect crime rates more effectively than anything else Obama could do as a senator: “If you can ratchet back the firepower, then you really can do something about the level of violence in urban areas.”

Illinois death penalty

The Floyd Brown ad highlights Obama’s refusal in 2001, while a state senator, to support extending the death penalty in Illinois for murders connected to gang activity. Obama voted against it because he said it unfairly targeted minorities and the poor.  

Though it passed the assembly, then-Gov. George Ryan vetoed it over similar concerns about unconstitutional applications of the death penalty.

In turn, Obama’s campaign says that McCain voted against bills in the 1990s that funded the COPS program, a federal grant that helped cities hire more police officers. Those hiring grants have been sharply reduced under the Bush administration.

Jens Ludwig, an economist at the University of Chicago who studies crime issues, believes the program was effective. “The best thing [the Senate] could do is give out more money for more cops,” he said. He says McCain is vulnerable on the issue and that Obama could “run to his right” on crime.

But McCain has framed the program as pork-barrel spending. “John McCain voted against these fiscally reckless proposals because Americans should expect that their government can fund law-enforcement priorities by eliminating the billions in wasteful spending that occurs every year, not by further increasing the tax burden on American families,” the RNC’s Diaz said.

David Muhlhausen, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and who is critical of the COPS program, said McCain’s and Obama’s attacks both miss the mark. He says there really isn’t much that can be done at the federal level to combat violent crime.

“Neither of them have a plan to reduce urban crime,” he said. “It’s sort of a bogus shell game going on.”

joliphant@tribune.com