By Jamey Dunn
As the debate over concealed carry continues in Illinois, gun control advocates are setting their priorities.
Last week, the Illinois House rejected two concealed carry proposals — one restrictive plan favored by some gun control advocates and one more permissive proposal backed by the National Rifle Association. The Senate is still working to reach a bipartisan agreement, but negotiations have reportedly hit some snags. A federal court gave lawmakers until early June to pass legislation regulating the carry of firearms in the state.
Those lobbying for gun control hope to see a more restrictive carry law. “We call on lawmakers to use this opportunity to pass the strongest possible gun laws in this country. A law that limits guns in paces like schools and stadiums and government buildings and public transportation for heaven’s sake — a law that mandates strong training requirements and for permit holders to have an awfully good cause for being issued one,” said Bishop Christopher Epting of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. “We must balance the Second Amendment with the rights we have to live in peace and free from fear of another life lost to gun violence.”
But many also see the court’s order as an opportunity to put in place some restrictions that they call “common sense” safety measures, which they say would make it easier for law enforcement to track guns and could help to quell the rampant violence in Chicago. The city had more than 500 murders last year, and 87 percent of the victims died from gunshot wounds. “Every time I talk to a legislator, the number one question I get is Chicago. How is this going to stop what’s happening in the city of Chicago?” said Colleen Daley, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. “That’s the reason we’ve put together an anti-trafficking proposal looking at things like universal background checks, reporting of lost or stolen firearms, dealer licensing and titling guns like cars or some point of sale reporting, so we actually know where that gun is supposed to be.”
Oak Park Democratic Sen. Don Harmon said the focus of gun control advocates must be on measures they believe will do the most to make neighborhoods safe. “We’re not ready to back down. We have a long list of things that we want, and I’m going to ask you to remember just one thing: Let’s always focus on our ultimate objective. We want our neighborhood to be safer; we want our kids and our families to be safe. Anything we do has to make sure we make progress on that front. We might not get everything we want, but we’re going to get safer neighborhoods. We’re going to get safer communities. Our families will be safe; our children will be safe,” Harmon said as he addressed a crowd that had come to Springfield to lobby lawmakers.
Sen. Dan Kotowski, former executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, said he is focused on three provisions he thinks can find broad support. He said that this spring, he is most interested in passing legislation that would require background checks for all gun sales — currently they are not required for private sales — and would require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms. He also said he wants to work to fix systemic problems with the reporting of mental health records to the Illinois State Police, which licenses gun owners. “If we were to move forward on those three basic initiatives, I think that would be a positive step forward,” he said. “If we’re making the determination to allow people to carry loaded, concealed handguns in public places, when the vast majority of the public is clamoring for reasonable measures which prevent people from getting access to guns who are criminals, who are mentally ill or who are threats to the community, we need to have a proper balance.”
Gov. Pat Quinn supports all three of those measures. The governor has also been vocal about his desire for bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines since a mass shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last summer. “The legislature needs to get significant reforms adopted into bill form that come to my desk beyond just concealed carry. That’s not enough,” Quinn said. During a recent gun control rally, which drew family and friends of victims of Chicago gun violence to the Statehouse, Quinn recalled several high-profile shootings. “We're here to save lives. We don’t want people being shot down in a movie theater or a church or a political rally in Tucson, Arizona, or going to first grade in Newtown, Connecticut. Or, or even in our own state. In DeKalb, Illinois, on Valentine's Day five years ago, a gunman [came] into a classroom and killed five students. Five good men and women. I went to each of their funerals. We’re tired of going to funerals.”
Quinn failed to mention the violence in the city, but Daley said that was all right. “We talk about mass shootings all the time and pointing to Connecticut and pointing to Colorado because we have that actually happening in the city on a weekend,” she said. “So paralleling the two of them actually makes a lot of sense in trying to explain it.”
Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, said he appreciates Quinn’s relentless public support for gun control, even if some of the things the governor wants are not at the top of his list this year. “Yes. I think we have to pick what’s feasible to get passed right now. As you know, I’ve advocated for the limitations of high capacity ammunition magazines in the past,” he said. Kotowski sponsored a ban that passed in the Senate in 2007, but the bill languished in the House. “I think those are more long- term,” he said of the magazine ban and assault weapons ban. “But right now, what can we do immediately?”
Mary Kay Mace, mother of Northern Illinois University shooting victim Ryanne Mace, said she hopes that the debate on concealed carry sheds light on the problems with safety measures that are already in place. “What I hope happens is that people become aware of how shoddy our background check system is,” she says. “I think that people just assume that the laws that we have already on the books are working well, and they are not.”
Some lawmakers who advocate for gun owners’ rights also support a few of Kotowoski’s priorities. Harrisburg Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps, who sponsors the NRA-backed concealed carry proposal, called the mental health records reporting system a “travesty” that he says he wants to help fix. He said increasing the fees for concealed carry permits in his bill to $100 could help address the problems. He also supports universal background checks for all gun sales. However, Phelps does not favor requiring gun owners to report firearms that are lost or stolen. He also does not think that gun control measures should be tacked onto concealed carry legislation. “Now’s not the time to reinvent the wheel,” he said.
Daley said that as advocates focus on their priorities, they should remember that no single change will stop the violence. “One thing we like to make clear is that we don’t [work] under the notion that all of these laws are suddenly going to stop all the violence. Gun violence is a very complex issue, and there are a lot of factors that go into it — economy, where people live, all of that — but what we can do is, we can enact laws that are going to help law enforcement and that are going to cut back on crime that’s taking place — gun violence that is taking place.”
Mace said that she is hopeful about the potential for compromise. “I think that we have more common ground than a lot of people realize. I think that the extremists are loudest on both sides.”