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Chicago Students Rally For Gun-Control

Enough desks to fill a classroom sat empty in a downtown plaza Tuesday, each bearing a pair of sneakers and representing one of 20 Chicago Public Schools students killed by gunfire this school year.

Several hundred more sat empty in city schools, as busloads of teens skipped classes to attend a gun-control rally - their absences sanctioned by the district, whose CEO says he's angry that too many students talk about "if" they grow up, instead of "when."

"This doesn't happen in other countries," Arne Duncan said. "We just value our right to bear arms more than we value our children, and our priorities are fundamentally backwards."

Since September, 20 students in the nation's third-largest school district have been killed by gunfire. Last school year, 24 students were shot to death, compared with between 10 and 15 fatal shootings in the years before.

As a result, the Chicago Police Department is increasing school patrols and soon will have live access to thousands of security cameras mounted outside and inside schools.

The most recent fatality involved an 18-year-old killed in a high school parking lot last weekend.

That high school, Simeon Career Academy, sent 10 busloads of students to the rally in front of the James R. Thompson Center, which houses state government offices. Students from three other high schools also participated.

While some in the crowd of several hundred teenagers horsed around, laughed and chatted with friends, others somberly carried placards with victims' names on them, or signs reading "Save Our Children - Follow the Guns."

Other students used their cell phones to take pictures of the empty desks that sat in front of a podium.

Chaqueta Clifton, 16, wore a button on her pink jacket reading "Stop Killing People." She said her father was killed in a robbery when she was 7, and her uncle and cousin died in gun violence, as well.

She said the recent deaths of CPS students have made her "kind of paranoid." She tries to be hyper-aware of her surroundings, and stays clear of any fights that break out nearby, saying some of the shootings have been the result of petty arguments that started out as "nothing."

"It makes me angry, and sad, and I just want to do something about it," she said.

Among the gun-control measures called for by rally participants were a limit of only one gun purchase a month, a renewal of the federal assault weapon ban, and background checks for all gun sales.

The rally also was attended by several families whose children have died in gun violence during the past few years, and Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Chicago bans handgun ownership and sales, and Daley regularly pushes gun-control measures at the state Capitol in Springfield, where lawmakers are divided more by geography than political allegiances. Legislators in and around Chicago tend to favor gun restrictions, while downstaters usually argue for hunter and gun owners' rights.

Blagojevich urged the rally's participants to make their voices heard in Springfield and Washington, D.C. "How many more children have to die before the men and women who make the rules wake up and start responding to the needs of communities and kids that go to our schools?" he said.

Responding to the rally's makeup, National Rifle Association lobbyist Todd Vandermyde said he questioned whether students should be taken out of classes "to serve as cheerleaders for a political stunt."

As for the measures that rally participants called for, Chicago "has some of the strictest gun control in the nation ... They said this was going to solve the crime problem, and their panacea hasn't done anything but disarmed law-abiding citizens," Vandermyde said.

The most recent shooting, according to prosecutors, occurred when two teenagers now charged with murder argued with a group of students getting out of Saturday classes at Simeon. One of the teens pointed the gun at the crowd, the other grabbed it and fired, killing Chavez Clarke, authorities said.

As a result, along with gun control, several students at the rally called for more highly trained security guards at Chicago schools. Others expressed worries that when it comes to gang violence, no amount of gun control will keep gang members from acquiring guns.

"They'll always find a way," said Tiara Irby, 17.