Gun debate takes center stage in Ill. house race

Congress gun control legislation capitol building pistol violence generic
CBS/iStockphoto

Updated: 5:01 p.m. ET

As the Obama administration continues a national campaign to build public support for more stringent gun laws, the larger debate about gun violence has already begun to seep into one House race, where a pair of super PACs have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to keep pro-gun candidates out of office.

Early voting starts today in the primary contest for Illinois' 2nd congressional district seat, which was vacated recently by former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill. But in what looks so far to be a relatively close contest, several candidates have been targeted for their pro-gun records, and at least one super PAC is funneling upwards of a million dollars into getting its message on the air.

According to a spokesperson for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC, the super PAC will have spent more than $1 million by the end of next week in ads targeting former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, D-Ill., who is vying for Jackson's old seat.

"Throughout her years in Washington and Springfield, Debbie Halvorson's record on gun safety has been entirely devoid of any semblance of the kind of common-sense reforms that will keep Americans safer from the scourge of gun violence," said Stefan Friedman, spokesman for Independence USA PAC, in a recent statement. The ad particularly targets Halvorson's "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, and past opposition to an assault weapons ban, a ban on high-capacity magazine clips, and universal background checks.

"Halvorson even co-sponsored a bill that would allow some criminals to carry loaded, hidden guns across state lines," the ad warns. "Debbie Halvorson: When it comes to preventing gun violence, she gets an F."

Progressive Kick, a liberal super PAC that focuses on elections and incumbent accountability, has also focused its energies on defeating Toi Hutchinson, a Democratic candidate for the seat who also got an "A" rating from the NRA. That group started airing an ad last weekend targeting Hutchinson and Halvorson, according to a spokesman for the group, and are also releasing cookie-based web ads targeted to Democratic primary voters.

In the wake of the December massacre in Newtown, Conn., a handful of super PACs and pro-gun control groups have pledged to counterbalance the lobbying power of the NRA, the organizing and fundraising prowess of which have long been feared by candidates in states with large populations of gun owners. Among those groups include Independence USA PAC, as well Americans for Responsible Solutions, a super PAC founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly. Giffords survived a gunshot to the head in a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona two years ago during which six people were killed.

Americans for Responsible Solutions unveiled its first television ad this morning, which according to the PAC will air during President Obama's state of the union speech tomorrow night. The ad features Giffords, whose speech is halting as a result of her injuries, urging Congress to act.

"Let's get this done," she says in the ad.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Halvorson was initially targeted by these super PACs due to what looked like a lead in the polls. But Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., recently endorsed a different Democratic contender, former State Rep. Robin Kelly. The Hill newspaper also reports that Kelly's internal polling shows her jumping ahead of Halvorson in recent days,  though that polling had a relatively large (4.9 percent) margin of error.

"Robin supports common sense gun control measures such as a comprehensive ban on assault weapons, the elimination of gun show loopholes and a ban on high capacity ammunition magazines. Her voice will be welcomed on this issue as Congress looks to pass meaningful legislation that will help remove guns from our streets and violence from communities," said Rush, in a statement. "I look forward to working with Robin to address the issue of gun violence that is prevalent in far too many of our communities."

Throughout the recent debates over gun control, the Obama administration has repeatedly cited Chicago as having an inordinately high rate of gun violence. According to the Chicago Tribune, the city saw 506 homicides last year, which was a 17 percent jump from 2011. The Tribune also reports that President Obama will address the city's gun violence when he visits Chicago this Friday.