Change of Heart

UPDATED 05/22/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/22/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

One bullet ripped through Huey Rich's right thigh, and another tore into his groin. He might have survived had a major artery not been severed, but he died four days after alleged robbers shot him on the street last Oct. 18 in front of his home on Chicago's South Side. His father, Rep. Bobby Rush, was with 29-year-old Huey at the hospital when he died and wept at the senselessness—and the irony—of the killing. "One of the things that hurts me so much about my son is that he didn't get to be 30," says Rush, 53. "I always thought it was going to be me who wouldn't get to 30."

Rush managed to survive his own turbulent youth, during which he was the deputy minister of defense for the Black Panther Party in the racially charged late 1960s. And while his passion for social reform remains intact, the cause that stirs his heart has changed—radically. The man who once called for African-Americans to carry guns and defend themselves against police is now one of the nation's most vociferous proponents of gun control, a political stance that his son's murder has escalated to the level of a moral crusade. "He has really stepped up his efforts in addressing violence and guns," says Rush's wife, Carolyn, 50. "It's a way in which he is dealing with his grief."

Rush had not been close to his son for most of his life (Huey was raised by an aunt), but the two became good friends in recent years. "He was starting to find his way," says Rush of Huey, a budding cosmetologist who was engaged to marry the mother of his 3-year-old daughter Nia Ann. "The pain of his death will never totally go away." Two months after the shooting, Rush created the Chicagoland Cease Fire Coalition, a community-based antihandgun campaign. But Rush, a Democrat, has been rallying lawmakers to his cause since 1992, when he won election to the House of Representatives with 82 percent of the vote. "Some people thought I'd march into Congress with combat boots, brandishing shotguns," he says. Instead, in his four terms (he's running for a fifth), Rush has sponsored or co-sponsored 31 pieces of legislation on gun control and intends to introduce a bill banning handguns to all but police. "He's been pushing the issue, and more and more people are beginning to buy into it," says New York State Rep. Ed Towns. "He's considered a leader on the issue, and the tragedy of his son's death has further convinced him that, 'Look, I'm right.' "

Rush's activist roots go back to the politically volatile '60s. A high school dropout and Army veteran, he founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers in 1967 (he named his son after party leader Huey Newton). "We were reacting to police brutality, to the historical relationship between African-Americans and recalcitrant racist whites," says Rush. His solution to what he felt was an oppressive police force? "We needed to arm ourselves."

Rush just missed being killed in a 1969 police raid on a Panther meeting that left two of his colleagues dead, and in 1972 he spent six months in jail for gun possession. One year later he completed his education at Chicago's Roosevelt University, graduating with honors. In 1974 he left the Panthers for good. "We started glorifying thuggery and drugs," he explains. Over the years his position on guns evolved, but the turning point came in 1991, when a close friend lost a son in a drive-by shooting. "I allowed my fervor against unjust officers to blind me to what was going on," he says. "There was a more direct threat coming from guns in our community."

That reality hit even closer to home last October, when two alleged robbers confronted Huey Rich as he returned from buying groceries. He was shot with a 9-mm handgun as he ran away (both suspects are in jail awaiting trial on charges of first-degree murder and armed robbery). The tragedy strengthened Rush's resolve to abolish guns and also made him want to spend more time with his wife, four grown children and eight grandchildren. "We've been trying to be closer as a family," says Carolyn. "That's a very powerful change that has come out of this."

Still, Rush sounds like the fiery activist of old when he talks about the evils of guns, and he has more incentive than ever to see his cause through to the end. "I hold on to my son, to his memory, and he lives in my heart," says Rush. "And I'm committed to making sure that his life was not given in vain."

Alex Tresniowski
Champ Clark in Chicago

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