First lady Michelle Obama talks to students at Harper High School in Chicago.

''There isn't much distance between me and you'': Michelle Obama with Chicago students. Photo: AP

As politicians took a step towards tightening the nation's gun laws, first lady Michelle Obama sat with students at Harper High School in West Englewood, Chicago, and cried as they talked about the threat of violence they face every day.

For two hours, Mrs Obama heard in private story after story about the challenges of dodging bullets, avoiding gangs and - the thing they cannot take for granted - staying alive.

According to the students, the first lady wanted to know how many of them had been affected by the gun violence. Every one of them told her they had, said Ta'taleisha Jones, a 16-year-old who attended the meeting.

''She said: 'Have you ever experienced a family member hurt or killed?' I told her: 'Yeah.' When she was talking about how her life was and how we changed her, she got real emotional. I was like, 'Wow, we see the first lady crying' . Tears were coming out her eyes,'' Ta'taleisha said .

Mrs Obama had talked to the students earlier about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago's South Shore community, just a few kilometres from Englewood, and attending public schools. She was no different than they, working hard in school, trying not to listen to the haters and taking care of her business, she said.

''One of the reasons why I like to talk to kids, especially from my city, is to make sure all of you know that there isn't much distance between me and you. There really is not,'' she said. But, Ta'taleisha said, life was a lot worse now.

Earlier at a business lunch, Mrs Obama said the issue was personal.

''I'm here today because Chicago is my home,'' she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

''When it comes to ensuring the health and development and success of young people in this city, for me, this is my passion, it is my mission. And for me, this is personal because my story would not be possible without this city.''

In Washington, President Barack Obama applauded Senate leaders for reaching a bipartisan agreement on requiring background checks for gun purchases, but he said the measure still faced a fight in Congress.

At the Chicago lunch, hosted by mayor Rahm Emanuel, Mrs Obama recalled attending the funeral of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton in February. Hadiya's parents, who were in the audience, cried as she spoke about how Hadiya's story reminded her of her own.

''Hadiya's family did everything right, but she still didn't have a chance,'' she said.

In choosing Harper High School for the visit, the White House noted that 29 present or former students had been shot in the past year, eight of them fatally.

Chicago Tribune