With Wisconsin poised to allow people to carry concealed weapons in public, gun advocates have made Illinois -- the last holdout -- a prime target in their campaign to give citizens unrestricted rights to carry weapons.
Illinois has been one of their toughest foes in the battle over Second Amendment rights. Chicago was forced by the U.S. Supreme Court last year to end a citywide ban on handguns that had been in effect since 1982. A bill to allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons was defeated in the General Assembly last month after Gov. Pat Quinn threatened to veto it.
The legislation passed Wednesday would make Wisconsin the 49th state to allow concealed weapons such as handguns, stun guns and knives. Washington, D.C., also bans the weapons.
The bill, passed in part because none of the other states that allow concealed weapons has had to repeal their law, added momentum to pro-gun efforts in Illinois. The strategy, advocates said, is to attack Illinois from every direction, from the courts to the Legislature.
“This battle will be waged relentlessly at the polls and in the courts,” said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association. “We expect a favorable outcome in the courts, but if these actions fail, it just means that more actions will follow. We will fight until we win, no matter how long it takes.”
Two lawsuits were filed against Illinois last month seeking to allow concealed carry, one in federal court by the Second Amendment Foundation and one in state court by the state rifle association.
Quinn, who has been a strong advocate of the restriction, said he would continue to fight to uphold it.
“We must ensure the safety of our neighborhoods, and allowing concealed carry does not advance that goal,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “Our streets need to be safer, and a concealed carry law would put first responders and the public at risk by allowing more weapons -- hidden weapons -- in public places.”
In the statement, the governor said the current regulatory system is “antiquated” and that there are legal gaps when it comes to identifying individuals who should be prohibited from carrying weapons.
But Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, who sponsored the Illinois concealed weapons bill, said the Wisconsin vote will help energize his efforts and he will likely introduce the measure again during the fall session. The bill was defeated by just six votes, the closest it has ever come to passage, Phelps said.
“It’s embarrassing. We’re the last ones,” Phelps said. “Every other state tends to believe this is a right, not a privilege, and they have let their law-abiding citizens do it. I don’t know why we should be any different.”
Previously, Quinn had the backing of former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, whose forceful anti-gun stance was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court. The court last summer gutted the city’s ban on handguns, forcing officials to rewrite the law to allow handguns at home but not in public.
In Chicago, firearms are also banned in garages, on front porches and in yards, as well as in hotels, dorms and group living facilities.
The Supreme Court has twice ruled that citizens have the right to keep firearms in private dwellings. But the court has not specifically addressed the concealed weapons issue, leaving states and municipalities to develop laws that ultimately face court challenges fueled by the National Rifle Association. Suits have also been filed against Washington.
Wisconsin, Iike Illinois, has wrestled with concealed gun legislation for years in partisan battles. The bill made it through the Wisconsin Legislature primarily with the votes of Republicans who now control all of the state government. In Illinois, however, the battle is largely regional, pitting downstate legislators who support gun rights against those in Chicago and Cook County who support the restriction.
“There has been a trend legislatively over the past several decades to weaken concealed carrying laws, but nothing in respect to public sentiment about concealed carrying,” said Ben Van Houton, an attorney for the Legal Community Against Violence, an anti-gun advocacy group in San Francisco.
“The trend speaks more to the gun lobby’s persistence and the weakness of state legislators than to any shift in how Americans feel about concealed weapons,” he said.
According to a poll commissioned by the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence in March, 56 percent of likely voters in the state said they oppose allowing private citizens to carry concealed handguns in public places.
Illinois House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, is a longtime opponent of concealed weapons proposals and said no one is safer by carrying them.
“In fact, by the time they get the gun out, it may well be too late. And to the extent they get the gun out early, they may well be causing pain and harm and damage to a family member,” Currie said. “We have enough mayhem, enough gun violence without the opportunity for people to carry concealed weaponry on their persons.”
But Fred Lutger, owner of Freddie Bear Sports in Tinley Park, said he hopes politicians who opposed concealed weapons will “wake up” now that Illinois is the lone holdout.
“Are 49 states wrong and we’re right?” he asked. “These politicians in Illinois have their heads somewhere it doesn’t belong.”
As a compromise, Phelps’ bill would have prohibited concealed weapons in bars, restaurants, certain businesses, courtrooms, schools and college campuses, he said.
“This bill was so watered down that you could only have it on your person walking around or in your car,” Phelps said.
In Wisconsin, concealed weapons would be banned in law enforcement offices, courthouses, areas of the airport beyond security checkpoints and other places. Businesses would be allowed to determine whether they want to allow concealed weapons.
While federal law establishes government buildings and areas within 1,000 feet of schools as gun-free zones, local government officials and private businesses have moved to establish gun-free zones in places such as city parks, shopping malls and workplaces.
Atlanta, for example, made Hartsfield International Airport a gun-free zone in 2008, a move that was quickly challenged in court. A federal appeals court, however, upheld that law. Orlando officials also made Disney World a gun-free zone.
Currie said she also opposes attempts to allow individual counties within Illinois to have different laws.
Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, said he is willing to search for a middle ground.
“I tend to think that both sides of the debate need to, in earnest, look at public safety,” said Raoul, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This notion that if we allow everybody to carry a gun, the streets are going to be safer, I don’t believe that that is the case. The notion that if we do everything to prohibit anybody from having a gun, the streets are going to be safer, I don’t believe that either. The truth lies somewhere in between.
“Instead of being a battle, there needs to be a discussion and negotiations and a study of what will actually make our streets safer with regards to gun policy.”
Tribune reporter Ashley M. Rueff and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this article.
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