Illinois has less than three months to comply with a federal court order requiring the nation’s fifth most-populous state to enact what is already law in the other 49 -- allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons.
Lawmakers must balance the intent of a Dec. 11 ruling by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago with the desire to protect the public. The ensuing debate over just who should be armed and where in the home state of President Barack Obama has exposed political and cultural divisions that cross party lines.
While the national gun debate in Congress is driven by the Dec. 14 shootings of 20 students and six educators at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, the deliberations here have closer-to-home influences. Chicago recorded 506 homicides in 2012, its highest number in four years. Then in January, Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl who had performed at Obama’s second inauguration, was shot dead in a park about a mile from the president’s South Side home.
Some opponents of stricter gun laws have used charged language to make their case that such violence in Illinois’s largest city shouldn’t dictate statewide policy.
“You folks in Chicago want me to get castrated because your families are having too many kids,” Republican state Representative Jim Sacia, from rural Freeport, said during a six-hour floor debate last month. “And that is exactly what is happening here. You want us to get rid of guns.”
Many state legislatures are divided by urban and rural interests. In Illinois, with about 380 miles (611 kilometers) separating its southern tip from an urban center with a history of the nation’s toughest gun laws, those fractures are even more pronounced.
While gun-control advocates -- most in urban areas -- have pushed for stronger restrictions in the wake of the Newtown and other mass shootings, opponents from rural and suburban areas have countered with claims that such atrocities could be eliminated or reduced if more citizens were armed.
In the days before South Dakota became, on March 8, the first state to explicitly allow teachers to carry guns in the classroom, urban-based Illinois Democrats attached provisions to create firearm-free zones in the concealed-carry bill under consideration in the House of Representatives, which they run. The areas affected include schools, hospitals, day-care centers, government buildings, stadiums and public-transit vehicles.
“Places where we do not want shoot-’em-ups, places where we want to make sure people are adequately protected,” said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat whose district includes the park where Pendleton was killed.
Lawmakers confront a deadline for the measure because the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (Chicago) gave the state 180 days to come up with a new law when it overturned a ban on carrying loaded guns outside the home, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. The grace period ends June 9.
In December, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel a Democrat, called the panel’s decision “wrong-headed.” Garry McCarthy, the city’s police superintendent, told a House committee on Feb. 22 that there’s “no compelling evidence, despite what gun advocates say, to show that more guns make people safer.”
A study published March 6 by the American Medical Association said states with the strictest laws regulating firearms have the lowest gun-death rates. Chicago’s murder rate contradicts that claim, said state Representative Brandon Phelps, a Democrat from downstate Harrisburg. “Obviously the strict gun laws don’t work,” he said.
Opponents of gun-free zones said geographic limits would make felons out of law-abiding citizens, ensuring that anyone carrying a gun would eventually run afoul of the law.
“We’re not going to accept any bill that is loaded up with so much junk that it defeats the purpose,” said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, an affiliate of the National Rifle Association. “We’re not going to accept a bill that diminishes what we believe to be our rights.”
Some critics, including state Representative Dennis Reboletti, a Republican from the Chicago suburb of Addison, said a restrictive concealed-carry law “would not pass constitutional muster” with the court. Supporters counter that New York state has successfully set tough requirements for firearm owners.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (New York) recently rejected a challenge to that state’s concealed-carry law, which requires applicants for such permits to show they have a special need for self-protection that is greater than others in the community.
In a unanimous ruling Nov. 27, the appellate judges in New York said the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep arms for self-defense in the home. That right doesn’t extend to carrying concealed handguns in public, the court said.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 ruled that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to keep and bear arms, striking down a handgun ban in the District of Columbia by a 5-4 vote. Two years later, the high court invalidated a Chicago ordinance that barred guns even within the home.
Mark Walsh, campaign director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, said the New York ruling made the case for limiting gun owners and that it counters claims that Illinois would be violating the order from the appeals court panel in Chicago.
“What Illinois is considering is similar to New York restrictions upheld by the Second Circuit,” Walsh said. “We think this certainly will stand up to constitutional muster.”
The Illinois measure also would include bans on assault-style weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines. Neither the House nor Senate has taken final action.
With the June deadline approaching, both sides say the matter likely will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Gun-control advocates may be buying time until one of the court’s more conservative justices is replaced, said Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at Northwestern University’s Law School in Chicago.
“What Illinois is trying to do,” Kontorovich said, “is place the most restrictions one can place on the Second Amendment and get away with it.”