by Jamey Dunn
Illinois is the last state in the nation that does not allow concealed firearms in public places, but gun rights advocates say concealed carry will come to the state, one way or another.
Illinois lawmakers who support concealed carry have been working for years to rally support by offering multiple bills and tinkering with everything from the list of public places where gun owners would be barred from bringing weapons to where and how such a law would apply.
“Seems like every year somebody introduces it. More than one bill — there are usually eight, nine, 10,” says Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat who sponsored House Bill 148. His bill would allow for concealed carry throughout the state but contains a list of places where it would not be allowed, such as bars and schools. HB 148 was just six votes short of the three-fifths majority it needed to pass when it came up for a vote last spring. Phelps says he thinks his bill is still a few votes shy of passing. “We’re the closest we’ve ever been in Illinois history, but yet we still don’t have it.”
HB 148 must have more than the usual 60-vote simple majority to pre-empt the power of home rule municipalities. More than 200 cities and counties hold home rule powers. Because of this requirement, some lawmakers are backing a different concealed carry plan that they hope to pass with a simple majority.
“I support statewide. That’s the goal. That’s the No. 1 goal,” says Rep. Bill Mitchell, a Forsyth Republican. Mitchell and two other Republican representatives from central Illinois are sponsoring a bill that would allow county boards to vote to approve concealed carry. “This would be an attempt to help downstate communities achieve what they want.”
Mitchell says Phelps’ legislation is the better bill. He said that his bill, HB 3974, would likely result in a piecemeal approach, and gun owners would have to be careful not to venture with a weapon into a county that has not approved concealed carry. “That is a problem,” he says. “I think that probably is the biggest problem.” Mitchell says he wants to protect the Second Amendment rights of the people he represents, so he is going for an outcome that could be within reach. He says he is an “optimist,” and he hopes that Phelps’ bill will pass this year. However, he asks, “What’s going to change between last year and this year?”
Pro-gun advocates have long complained that the city of Chicago sets the agenda when it comes to firearm regulation issues in Springfield. “It’s [people’s] God-given, constitutional right, and they can’t exercise it just because it’s one part of the state that’s blocking it,” Phelps says. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley was a strident advocate of gun control, and the city prohibited handgun ownership for more than a decade until the United States Supreme Court shot down the ban in 2010. If concealed carry legislation passes in the state, or a court ruling makes concealed carry a reality, the city of Chicago would go from having a ban on handguns a few years ago to allowing residents to carry a loaded gun in many public places.
Earlier this year, headlines declared that a 24-hour period passed in which no shootings were reported in Chicago. This was news because it had been almost a year since the city saw a full day without a shooting.
Chicago’s murder rate dropped lower in 2011 than it has been in 40 years. However, gun violence is still a widespread problem. A dozen people, including a 10-year-old girl, were wounded in 11 separate shootings that occurred in a single weekend in late January. And reports of double-digit shootings in one weekend are a common occurrence in the city.
Advocates on both sides of the concealed carry issue say such incidents bolster their case.
Those in favor of looser gun restrictions say the shootings in Chicago show that gun control laws do not reduce violence. “They’ve already had handgun bans in the city of Chicago, but they’ve got rampant crime,” Mitchell says. They argue that law abiding citizens living in high-crime areas and elsewhere should be able to carry guns for protection. “The ones that have the guns are the criminals and the bad guys, and we’re at their mercy,” Phelps says.
Gun control advocates say flooding the streets with more guns would hardly help stem the violence. “Living in one of those neighborhoods in Chicago [that has had several shootings in recent years], it scares the bejeezus out of me that there would be more guns in the neighborhood,” says Mark Walsh, campaign director of the Illinois Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and a resident of the Gage Park neighborhood. “People, when they understand the issue, understand that this really is not going to make you safer, and I think that’s why the bill failed last year.”
Walsh says the focus of the debate is often on push back from Chicago, but he says, “It’s not just an inner-city issue.” He says his group opposes rolling back gun restrictions because its goal is to reduce the total number of gun-related injuries, including incidents of domestic violence, accidental shootings and suicides.
While there is a strong base of opposition, Phelps says the tide is slowly turning — especially since Wisconsin approved concealed carry last year, making Illinois the last state in the country that does not allow it in some form.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has not been as vocal an opponent as his predecessor, but he did help Daley lobby against the bill that went down in the General Assembly last spring by signing on to an opposition letter sent to lawmakers.
“There are people in Chicago that believe that they have a right to conceal and carry [a gun],” says Democratic Rep. La Shawn Ford. While Chicago legislators and members of the black caucus have traditionally backed gun control measures, Ford, who is both, says he would consider supporting a concealed carry bill because he has received calls from constituents who support it. “I’m just willing to be open to a situation that 49 other states have found worthwhile,” Ford says.
“‘We should pass it because everybody else has it.’ That argument didn’t fly with my mom when I was 7,” Walsh says. He says what he hears from his neighbors is not: “I’d feel safer if I had a gun.” Instead, he says they ask, “Well, how do we get these guns out of the community?” Gun control organizations and gun rights advocates presented dueling polls last spring that they say indicate that Illinois voters back their positions.
While he does not have the support to pass his bill, Phelps says it is “just a matter of time” before the state has concealed carry, and it could come via a court order.
“I think that there’s a growing feeling that if the legislature doesn’t move, it’s going to come through the courts,” says Todd Vandermyde, a lobbyist for the Illinois State Rifle Association.
The U.S. Supreme Court opinion that overturned Chicago’s gun ban and another ruling from the court that overturned a handgun ban in Washington, D.C., have advocates looking to judges to define how far cities and states can go when it comes to gun control.
“That kind of opened up a flood gate, so we’re entering a legal area where the ground has not really been stirred up a lot yet,” says Dave Workman, senior editor of Gun Week. Workman’s publication is owned by the Second Amendment Foundation, which is suing Illinois in the federal court system to overturn the state’s ban on concealed carry. The Illinois Rifle Association and the National Rifle Association are engaged in a similar lawsuit in a U.S. district court in southern Illinois. “We’re finding out that these are the lawsuits that are kind of setting the boundaries, the ground rules, in how these cases are going to be pursued,” Workman says. “We’ve got an opportunity now to go around and target some of these gun laws and say: ‘Now wait a minute. That may not pass the smell test as far as the Second Amendment is concerned.’”
Phelps argues that lawmakers should approve legislation before a potential court ruling, so the state can set a more restrictive policy. “If it goes through the courts … it will be wide open,” he says. “When that happens, a lot of those people that voted against concealed carry … they’re going to wish they had [voted for the bill].”
Lawmakers would likely pass legislation if a judge ruled for concealed carry, but gun advocates may not be as willing to compromise. “If we win a court case, then some of the concessions we’ve made in the negotiations go away,” Vandermyde says.
John Lowy, director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s Legal Action Project, says that concealed carry in Illinois is far from inevitable. “There’s spin and then there’s reality. … You just shouldn’t be able to get away with claiming you’re confident that Illinois’ prohibition on carrying [a gun] is going to be struck down. There’s just no basis to have that confidence.”
Lowy says that groups such as the Second Amendment Foundation have filed about 400 lawsuits aimed at loosening gun restrictions across the country and can count few major victories. “Out of the hundreds [of lawsuits] that have been brought, there have been a small handful of narrow decisions,” Lowy says, adding that the Chicago and Washington, D.C., decisions are the springboard for these lawsuits. “However, the case law is getting more and more clear that there is not a Second Amendment right to carry guns in public.”
He adds: “That’s not to say that the Illinois legislature cannot decide to approve concealed carry. The Constitution allows it, but it’s pretty clear that the Constitution doesn’t require it.”
Those pushing for concealed carry in Illinois disagree. They say that the Second Amendment ensures the right to carry. “We’ve got to find out what the definition of reasonable boundaries [on gun rights] are and set those boundaries and see where those boundaries lie,” Workman says.
Phelps says that Illinois should look to other states as models for concealed carry. “I don’t want to say that because every other state has it, we should have it, but if it’s working for all the other states. ... You don’t see any other states trying to repeal this, so it must be doing some good. Otherwise, legislators would be lining up to repeal it.”
He says his bill would protect the public with strict standards on eligibility for a license and limits on where guns are allowed. “Just because you have a [Firearm Owner Identification] card does not mean that you’re going to get a concealed carry permit. … I’m not trying to say let’s give every kid and every person a gun. That’s not what this bill is about. There are so many safeguards in this bill.” But Phelps says opponents use scare tactics and political pressure to keep his measure stalled. “Everybody wants to just think the worst on this bill. What hurts this bill is the perception.”
Brian Malte, director of legislation and mobilization for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says that groups such as the National Rifle Association support legislation such as Phelps’ bill, and once it passes, start lobbying to chip away the safeguards. “They will give you all the bells and whistles. … Then, what they do is brick-by-brick repeal each piece of that until there is hardly anything left,” Malte says. “This is what the NRA does to get their foot in the door. … It’s a real live slippery slope. I mean, it’s playing out, and it has been for the last 10 or 15 years.”
Vandermyde says he doesn’t think it is likely that the legislature would pass Phelps’ bill before the state’s primary election later this month. When asked if he would call his bill for another vote, even if he was uncertain of the outcome, Phelps says he has not decided. “There’s a lot of law-abiding gun owners that really want me to,” Phelps says. “Especially with an election year, they really want to see who their friends are and who they are not.”
Illinois Issues, March 2012