Showdown looms on gun control
By Kevin McDermott
POST-DISPATCH SPRINGFIELD BUREAU
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Springfield is headed toward a political showdown over guns, with both sides loading up like they haven't in years.
The gun owners lobby is close to getting a floor debate in the Legislature on its pinnacle goal of allowing residents to carry concealed handguns in Illinois, which is one of just two states that still outlaw it. (Wisconsin is the other.)
"It's heating up. We think we're close," said Todd Vandermyde, a National Rifle Association lobbyist who has pushed the concealed-carry proposal in Springfield before. "You've got 48 states that have this. That's a statement."
Gun control advocates are firing back with bills to create new restrictions on the sale and transfer of those guns, while trying to stop the concealed-carry movement.
"Arming this state is going to make more and more people feel that they need to protect themselves, and it could escalate all the handguns that are out there," said state Rep. Harry Osterman, D-Chicago, a leading opponent of the concealed-carry proposals.
The trigger for the surge in gun-related political activity, many say, was a U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer that struck down as unconstitutional a gun ban in the nation's capital.
Gun control advocates say the case, District of Columbia v. Heller, didn't directly deal with a concealed-carry law and shouldn't have any bearing on that issue.
"There's certainly a lot more noise about it … (based on) their sense that the Supreme Court's decision has maybe helped their efforts a little bit," said Tom Mannard, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, which is trying to stop the NRA measure. "But frankly, I don't think it really is relevant to a lot of what they're discussing" with the concealed-carry legislation.
The gun lobby counters that the Heller ruling rejects the notion that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution merely gives states the right to raise militias, and doesn't actually bestow an individual right to bear arms.
The pro-gun forces also note that, in all the states that have allowed concealed handguns in recent years (including Missouri), fears of a Wild West-type shootout erupting among legally armed citizens have yet to materialize. "That's been proven wrong," said Vandermyde.
Mannard, the gun control advocate, counters: "We haven't seen mayhem in the street — that doesn't mean the potential isn't there."
There are several concealed-carry measures moving through Springfield right now, including one that is poised for a full House vote. It would create the "Family and Personal Protection Act," allowing applicants who undergo strict training and background checks to carry concealed weapons.
The idea has risen and fallen in Illinois in the past, but a key difference this time is the backing by the Illinois Sheriff's Association, which has previously stayed out of the debate.
"I think it will reduce crime," said St. Clair County Sheriff Mearl Justus, who was among the association members voting to back the idea. He said he had changed his mind about his earlier concerns that concealed weapons were an intrinsic danger. "I used to feel that way, but 48 states can't be wrong."
Mannard, of the gun-control group, says that argument clashes with common sense. "If I'm walking down the street, and the neighbor across the street is carrying a loaded 9 millimeter with a 15-round clip, that doesn't make me feel safer."
The usual complexities of the gun control debate are exacerbated in Illinois by the state's sharp regional differences, which on the issue of guns is more relevant even than partisan differences. In fact, the most fervent advocates on both sides of the issue here are all from the same majority party — with Chicago Democrats leading the gun control movement and downstate Democrats pushing for gun-owner rights.
"We've seen instances in our part of the state where, if someone would have had the ability to have a concealed weapon, they could have thwarted a robbery or an assault," said Rep. Dan Beiser, D-Alton, whose pro-gun position is typical of downstate lawmakers in both parties. "Missouri has implemented it, and you don't hear any instances where it's caused a problem that people could say, 'See, I told you that was going to happen.'"
The issue is further complicated by legislative rules in Springfield that have so far prevented passage of a concealed-carry law, even though pro-gun advocates believe they have a majority of legislators in their corner.
Illinois law says a majority isn't enough to pass a bill if it will infringe on the "home rule" powers of local communities. In those cases, a "supermajority" of three-fifths of lawmakers is needed to pass the bill. In the 118-member House, that translates into 71 votes needed for passage (instead of the standard 60), which the pro-gun lobby is unlikely to muster.
Gun control advocates say the concealed-carry bill trumps the power of local communities to ban concealed weapons from their streets, and so should require the "supermajority" legislative vote. Gun-rights advocates dispute that.
The decision is ultimately made, in the House, by Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, who usually sides with gun control advocates.
"He generally comes down on the side of safety," said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown. "I don't know how anyone can think this (concealed-carry proposal) is something that would enhance safety in Illinois."
The pro-gun lobby is focusing its efforts largely on getting a ruling that only a simple majority vote is needed in the House. "If not, it will be litigated," said Vandermyde, the NRA lobbyist.
As the concealed-carry issue continues, the gun-control lobby is pushing its own new initiatives, several of which are focused on getting tighter rules around how guns are sold and transferred.
Current state law requires licensed gun dealers to run criminal background checks on customers before the sale, but a private citizen who sells to an acquaintance isn't under the same obligation. A key measure filed by Osterman, the House Democrat from Chicago, would put the background-check requirement on those private sales.
"People who want to buy handguns will be able to," said Osterman, "but the safety of an instant criminal background check, which takes a matter of minutes, will still be in place."
The concealed-carry bill is HB245. The background-check bill is HB48.