Facing criticism from parents worried about their children traveling through dangerous neighborhoods to new schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel staked out a get-tough stance Wednesday proposing stiffer penalties for gun crimes near schools.
Whether the threat of fines and jail time for carrying guns near schools or designated school routes will cause gang members to reflect on whether they should carry weapons in those areas is unclear, however. In addition, state laws already allow prosecutors to push for considerably more time behind bars than called for under Emanuel's plan for people who break gun laws near schools.
The mayor framed his proposal as the latest step in keeping kids safe in the wake of his move to close dozens of public schools before the school year that starts in fall. He also has ordered firefighters to join police in patrolling the routes children will take to their new schools, trying to head off violence that could escalate the tension over the school closings.
"I have a responsibility, as the city does, all of us, to protect our children," Emanuel said. "The school safety zones are legitimate, they have stood the test of time and we are extending them to the Safe Passage routes, because that's the beginning process of kids getting to school, and I've been clear about that."
The ordinance, which was introduced at the City Council meeting, would raise penalties for certain gun offenses near schools to $1,000 to $5,000 and 30 days in jail for a first offense, $5,000 to $15,000 and 90 days to six months in jail for a second offense, and $10,000 to $20,000 and at least six months in jail for a third offense.
The enhanced penalties would be in effect for people convicted of illegal possession of a gun, ammunition or other dangerous weapon between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. on school days along designated Safe Passage routes, in school buses or school buildings or within 1,000 feet of schools.
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., 27th, one of the sponsors, said he thinks criminals will consider tougher fines when they think about committing gun crimes around schools. "Often people committing crimes are doing so to make money, so if you hit them in their pocketbook, that's definitely something they will think about," Burnett said.
Ald. Patrick O'Connor, 40th, Emanuel's City Council floor leader, said the municipal fines could prove useful mainly in cases where judges don't want to send defendants to prison for gun offenses.
"I don't know that it's a huge deterrent," O'Connor said. "But I do know that it's one more thing we're trying to do to make sure that areas around schools are safe. And to the extent that a lot of people who get arrested on weapons violations don't necessarily end up in jail, the monetary fine might be a disincentive."
Emanuel also is seeking to tighten up the city's assault weapon ban in light of the state legislature's recent passage of concealed carry legislation that awaits action by the governor. The new ordinance would update city statutes to ban a list of specific weapons and their equivalents. That includes any semi-automatic rifle or handgun capable of accepting a detachable magazine and has at least one military feature; any shotgun that is capable of accepting a detachable magazine, has at least one military feature or has a fixed capacity of more than five rounds; and any weapon with a fixed magazine of more than 15 rounds.
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