Gun control bills struggle in Democratic-controlled Illinois Legislature

Sunday, March 13, 2005

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Two years after Democrats won control of the legislature and the governor's office, gun control proposals closely identified with the party have gone nowhere.

Lately, bills to remove gun restrictions have been making as much progress as legislation to add restrictions.

Gun control advocates have learned, sometimes painfully, that party labels don't matter much when it comes to guns in Illinois. Downstate lawmakers, whether Democrat or Republican, represent large numbers of hunters and sportsmen, so they tend to oppose gun control.

"The Second Amendment is a right, it's not a privilege, so we're just standing firm with what we believe in and what our fore-fathers gave us," said Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Southern Illinois Democrat who is sponsoring a bill, now headed to the House floor, to let people carry concealed firearms.

The National Rifle Association accuses Chicago Democrats of "arrogance" in their handling of the issue. Gun control supporters complain that Gov. Rod Blagojevich says he backs them but does little to build support for their legislation.

The issue took on new proportions this month after the husband and mother of a federal judge in Chicago were shot to death in her home. The shootings spurred at least one legislative proposal in Springfield to allow judges to carry concealed weapons.

Gun-control proponents see a ray of hope in the largely Republican Chicago suburbs, where crime is growing.

"If suburban Republicans want to vote with the NRA, they're going to find in their next election that they have a problem," said Sen. John Cullerton, D-Chicago. "That's where the swing votes are."

A key member of the suburban GOP says that's an overly optimistic view.

"There are some members who believe that some of the bills are unconstitutional and some that believe that it's just too broad of a stroke of gun regulation," said Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale.

He said the Legislature could still end up passing two Democrat-coveted gun-control measures this year: Requiring background checks on people who buy weapons at gun shows and banning so-called assault weapons.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who last fall lost lawsuits attempting to hold the gun industry responsible for handgun deaths in the city, returned to the Legislature in January with another gun-control package.

Besides closing the "gun-show loophole" and banning assault weapons, it included limiting buyers to one handgun a month, licensing of firearms dealers and stiffening penalties for armed crimes and irresponsible gun shops. The goal is to choke off the supply of weapons illegally reaching criminals.

Several of Daley's bills failed this month in a Senate committee, but they will likely be heard again.

"Sometimes there's just a level of arrogance with the city of Chicago," NRA lobbyist Todd Vandermyde said. "They're the city of Chicago and other people should just kowtow to their will and they take too much for granted."

The NRA has countered with its own agenda: Two versions of concealed-carry legislation, allowing citizens who pass training programs to arm themselves, have made it to the House floor for a vote. Another proposal awaiting House floor action would prohibit cities, such as Chicago, which bans handguns, from imposing firearms regulations.

Gun-control advocates have not been without their successes. House committees have approved and sent to the House floor measures for statewide licensing of dealers, a ban on .50-caliber ammunition for high-capacity rifles, and a requirement that new guns come with trigger locks.

Chicago lobbyist John Dunn is confident a bill closing the "gun-show loophole," as well as a Senate version of statewide licensing, will get Senate committee approval this week.

The question mark for both sides has been Blagojevich.

The Democrat strongly supported gun control during his three terms in Congress. But his Illinois State Police have testified against some of gun-control measures, such as statewide licensing, citing the cost of implementing them.

Governor's spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff says Blagojevich's support has not wavered. The state police opposition was an error on a staff member's part which has been cleared up, she said.

"If these bills pass, we will find the money," she said. "We think these are important measures."

Blagojevich is taking steps on his own, Ottenhoff said. He will announce a plan Monday to reduce gun trafficking across state lines, she said, although she would not elaborate. In 2001, 47 percent of the guns recovered after Illinois crimes came from other states, a number that grew from 35 percent in 1996, she said.

Proponents of legislative measures say there is little the governor can do when the goal is to pick up more Republican support.

"We don't even expect downstate Democrats to vote for these things," Cullerton said. "It's regional, not political."

But like Dillard, Sen. Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, is not convinced her constituents are ready for more gun control.

"The fever for gun control has peaked," Radogno said. "I'm sensing that people are realizing that there is a lot on the books; if it was enforced, it would be helpful."

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