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Editorial: What Chicago wants to hear from Obama

WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 7:  U.S. President Barack Obamspeaks U.S. House Democratic Issues Conference Lansdowne Resort February 7 2013 Lansdowne

WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 7: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the U.S. House Democratic Issues Conference at the Lansdowne Resort February 7, 2013 in Lansdowne, Virginia. Obama reportedly implored Democrats in the House to stay with their principles during legislative fights on immigration, guns and the economy. (Photo by Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 161131883

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Updated: March 13, 2013 6:15AM

Chicago will be there.

When President Barack Obama looks into the audience during his State of the Union address Tuesday, he will see his hometown hanging on his every word, listening to hear what he will do to help us end the bloodshed and keep our children safe.

Chicago will be there in spirit with Cleopatra and Nathaniel Pendleton, the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl whose shocking murder two weeks ago seems finally to have woken this city to its appalling death toll. The Pendletons will attend the speech in the House chamber as the president’s guests.

Then on Friday, Obama is expected to visit Chicago, where we hope the plague of urban violence will again be foremost on his mind, whatever else he may have to say. When working in a trauma center, the first rule is triage.

On Tuesday, the president undoubtedly will go right to the heart of the matter on gun violence. He almost certainly will mention Hadiya by name and the December massacre of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., in calling for new federal gun laws. Chicago is all but begging for such sensible measures, especially background checks on all gun sales and a crackdown on high-volume “straw” purchases by unscrupulous middlemen.

But much more of Obama’s second-term agenda, with its emphasis on boosting the middle class, is essential to the job of quelling urban violence — and the president must make the connection clear.

A strong society is a less violent society. It requires fewer cops and prisons because it produces fewer criminals. It builds a future for all citizens from the ground up, with good schools, support for families, decent jobs and broad opportunity to move up the social ladder.

It lives within its means, to be sure, but makes smart public investments in education, health care, basic research and infrastructure, such as roads and bridges.

Obama on Tuesday will champion this role for government, as he signaled in his second inaugural speech. Our hope is that moderate Republicans such as Sen. Mark Kirk, who was elected to represent South Side Roseland as well as North Shore Winnetka, will break with GOP anti-government extremists and sincerely seek common ground with the president.

In a related development, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez on Monday called for longer mandatory prison sentences in Illinois — to three years from one — for those convicted of gun crimes. While we favor tough penalties for gun crimes, the word “mandatory,” which gives judges no discretion to make commonsense exceptions, should give everybody pause.

Supporters of the proposal point to New York, where a 3½-year mandatory minimum sentence for illegal gun possession became law in 2007. New York’s violent crime rate, already trending down, continued to drop, which some criminologists credited to the sentencing change.

And a spokesman for Mayor Emanuel’s office noted that while mandatory sentencing can be problematic, there is strong evidence that it is particularly effective when imposed for gun violations — violent crime rates fall.

Frankly, we’re in no mood to oppose this sentencing change. We’re as fed up as anybody with the guns and the killing. Three years behind bars for felony gun possession, as a rule, doesn’t sound overly harsh to us.

But as another rule, it is usually better to give judges guidelines than straitjackets.

This proposal demands a full and thoughtful debate.

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