We spend the hour looking at President Obama’s State of the Union address, beginning with his call for new gun control. Obama asked Congress to vote on new gun reform measures, including background checks and a ban on assault weapons. But with the gun lobby-beholden Congress unlikely to approve Obama’s agenda, we’re joined by two guests who call for a broader approach that includes tackling the root causes of violence. "We’re still waiting for a comprehensive discussion from the president ... about really all of the underlying factors that contribute to gun violence," says Cathy Cohen, a political science professor and founder of the Black Youth Project, which began the petition for Obama to return to Chicago to address the gun violence plague after the murder of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton. She says she hopes his Chicago talk on Friday will address "the unemployment that young people face, the inadequate schooling that they face, the problematic policies around incarceration, the trauma that they face from the violence and unemployment in their neighborhoods. And the truth is, is without that type of discussion, we’re never really going to move forward in really trying to deal with and stem the violence in the lives of these young people." Bob Herbert, a distinguished senior fellow with Demos and former op-ed columnist for The New York Times, adds, "If we can begin to change the culture, this gun and violence culture in the country, then we may be able to make some headway." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Today we spend the hour looking at President Obama’s State of the Union address and proposals on the economy, climate change, Afghanistan and immigration. We begin with his call for new gun control. Obama called on Congress to vote on new gun reform measures including background checks and bans on what he described as, quote, "weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines." Obama said each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote, because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun. More than a thousand.
One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.
Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote. They deserve a vote. They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence, they deserve a simple vote.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on President Obama’s State of the Union, we’re joined right now by two guests. Cathy Cohen is professor of political science at the University of Chicago, founder of the Black Youth Project. Her group began the petition for the president to return to Chicago to address the crisis of gun violence after the murder of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton. Obama plans to visit Chicago on Friday. We’re also joined by Bob Herbert, distinguished senior fellow from Demos. From 1993 to 2011, he was an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Professor Cohen. Talk about President Obama’s addressing of the issue of gun violence as the parents of Hadiya Pendleton sat next to the first lady.
CATHY COHEN: Sure. You know, I don’t think there’s any denying that that was probably the most moving part of the State of the Union address. To hear the president talk about Hadiya’s life, as well as her kind of horrific death, to finally have him personalize this issue, to talk about the fact that there are young people dying in Chicago within blocks or miles of his house, was clearly, I think, an important step for the president, and really a healing moment for the city.
That said—and I want to say, you know, we all continue to mourn Hadiya’s death. We continue to mourn the deaths of all of our young people who are being killed by gun violence. But we’re still waiting, I think, for a comprehensive discussion from the president, a comprehensive speech to talk about really all of the underlying factors that contribute to gun violence. You know, we’re still waiting for him, hopefully on Friday, to talk about the unemployment that young people face, the inadequate schooling that they face, the problematic policies around incarceration, the trauma that they face from the violence and unemployment in their neighborhoods. And the truth is, is without that type of discussion, we’re never really going to move forward in really trying to deal with and stem the violence in the lives of these young people.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cohen, can you explain what you did after Hadiya was murdered, what, a week after she performed at President Obama’s inauguration, not a mile from where the Obamas live in Chicago?
CATHY COHEN: Sure, sure. You know, it wasn’t just me, I want to be very clear. It was the Black Youth Project, of which I am a member and a part and the founder. We were all, really, sitting in a room, the staff, and kind of voicing our frustration with the fact that we keep watching young people die in our city, and it seems, in fact, that somehow the country does not understand the kind of—the worth of their lives. And it just felt like we needed to add our voices to an increasing kind of collective in the city calling for the president to take some moral leadership on this issue. And so we decided, "Let’s start a petition."
You know, we had heard elites and leaders talk about the president coming home, but we felt like there needed to be kind of the added voice of hopefully thousands of people telling the president that he needed to come to Chicago, he needed to come home, and he needed to talk about gun violence in a comprehensive way. And so, we worked with the folks at Change.org. We mounted a petition. And then we asked Aisha Truss-Miller if she would join us, because she is a friend and a colleague that we trust and we know. She actually had lost a cousin to gun violence. And we thought it would be critical, actually, to have someone who had gone through that loss also asking the president to come home and speak about gun violence. And so we mounted the petition not long after Hadiya’s death, and about 10 days later there were over 47,000 signatures. And I believe it was on Sunday the president announced that he was coming to Chicago this Friday to give a talk on gun violence.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Cathy Cohen, Chicago is often cited as an example of why gun control laws don’t work, because it has some of the strictest gun acquisition laws and, at the same time, the highest—among the highest levels of gun violence. Can you talk about that?
CATHY COHEN: Well, absolutely. And I think there are some, for example, who—on the right, who might say, "Well, look at Chicago. This is how—this is why gun restrictions don’t work." And I would say this is actually an example of why we need comprehensive gun control legislation. The truth is, is there are no gun shops in Chicago. But if one travels five minutes outside of the city, you can buy a gun, and individuals can buy guns, and you can see the illegal flow of guns into the city. So, without really kind of comprehensive gun legislation—that includes, of course, background checks and other types of legislation and regulations—even though we have very strict laws in Chicago, those laws are easily kind of violated by going into—just outside the city, going into Indiana. And that is, in fact, what we’ve seen. I think it was last year, the Chicago Police Department confiscated over 7,400 illegal guns in the city. And again, this is a city with some of the strictest gun laws in the country.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bob Herbert, I want to bring you into the conversation to ask what you think the likelihood is of successful gun control laws being passed. Shortly after Obama’s address last night, Republican from Oklahoma, Jim Inhofe, said that his agenda, that Obama’s agenda on gun control, was, quote, "a disaster," and that "As Congress contemplates new legislation, I will oppose anything that further restricts the Second Amendment or its contribution to the free exercise of all our constitutional rights."
BOB HERBERT: Well, I’m not hopeful about any kind of comprehensive gun control legislation moving forward. You know, the Republicans are a problem, but so are a lot of Democrats. It doesn’t even look like we’re going to get an assault weapon ban. So, you know, it’s starting to look like this gun control push is much ado about nothing.
But I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Cohen that in addition to addressing the problem of guns, which we should be addressing, we have to address the issues of joblessness and poverty and the loss of hope and the despair that are in these inner-city neighborhoods that are driving so many of our young people to violence. So, it’s not just comprehensive gun control that we need; we need a comprehensive policy to address the violence in this country. And I don’t see anything happening on any fronts.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk more about the economy and how President Obama is dealing with this, but I wanted to go to this issue of guns and the Republican response, which, interestingly, was divided between the tea party, Rand Paul, the new senator from Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida. In his rebuttal to Obama’s address, Senator Rubio spoke against calls for greater gun control.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: We were all heartbroken by the recent tragedy in Connecticut. We must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country. But unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Herbert, your response?
BOB HERBERT: You know, we do need comprehensive gun control, but we also need, for example, to go into inner cities, where we have so much violence, and begin to do gun buyback programs on an intensive scale. We need to ban assault weapons and those ridiculous clips where there are so many bullets in there. We need to have comprehensive gun registration laws and gun licensing laws. We need to move on all of those fronts. And we also need to do something about the manufacturing of guns in this country, which is out of control. So we have what? Three hundred million guns in a society of 300 million people? It makes no sense at all. Too many people are making too much money off of the gun and violence industry in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: While the polls show overwhelmingly Americans, and even gun owners, want gun control, the Democrats have joined with the Republicans in dropping the issue. They’ve been afraid. And it goes to the issue of money and politics and the National Rifle Association. Do you see a change with President Obama and with Congress? I mean, you’ve got Democratic senators who are going to fight it, too.
BOB HERBERT: I see—I don’t see much of a change with the Democratic Congress. I mean, I think we’ve gone backwards from the Clinton era, when we actually had an assault weapons ban in this country. There is a change in the language nationally now. And what I think is perhaps even more important is that there are an awful lot of people now outside of government, outside of elected officials, who are pushing on this issue. Cathy Cohen is—and her organization is an example, but there are many across the country. So if we can begin to change the culture, this gun and violence culture in the country, then we may be able to make some headway.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going go on to the issue of the economy after break. We want to ask Cathy Cohen, professor at University of Chicago, founder of the Black Youth Project, to stay with us, as well as Bob Herbert, distinguished senior fellow with Demos, former op-ed columnist with The New York Times. And we’re then going to talk about Afghanistan with Kathy Kelly, the well-known Chicago peace activist, who is just back from her umpteenth visit to Afghanistan. And we’ll also be joined later by Aura Bogado to talk about what President Obama didn’t say about immigration. Stay with us.