After a hard-fought battle, Illinois residents next month can begin applying for permits to carry concealed guns in public. But those who do could face another challenge: figuring out where it's legal to carry a firearm and where having a gun could land them in jail.
While the Illinois statute lays out nearly two dozen places where guns are prohibited — including schools, public parks, government offices and hospitals — it also includes caveats that might seem confusing, even contradictory, particularly to novice gun carriers.
For example, the law prohibits guns at events where there is a large gathering of people, like neighborhood street festivals. But it allows people with guns to walk through a public gathering on the way home, to work or to their car.
That means, according to some firearms instructors, that people could legally walk through the crowd at the South Side Irish Parade with a gun tucked in their belt but they couldn't hang around and watch the performances.
And although the law forbids guns in public parks, nothing in the statute prohibits someone from carrying a gun on a trail or bike path that goes through a park.
In other words, firearms instructors said, it's OK to arm yourself while riding a bike through the Cook County Forest Preserves, but you'd better not get off your bike to use the bathroom.
"It's like a Byzantine maze," said Colleen Lawson, owner of Lawson Handgun Institute, a firearms training facility on the North Side. "It's possible to get through it without breaking any laws, but it's tricky."
In most cases, permit holders can leave their gun in the glove compartment or the trunk of their vehicle in the parking lot when they go to the Field Museum, Brookfield Zoo or other entertainment venues where firearms are prohibited. But when they go to the post office, they'd better park on the street. Under federal law, firearms aren't even allowed in the parking lot of a post office in Illinois and most other states.
Though instructors are required to teach the basics of the Illinois and federal statutes during the16-hour training course, Lawson and others said it is inevitable that inadvertent violations will occur. So it is important that permit holders be as familiar as possible with the laws.
The new law also could pose a challenge for law enforcement, according to Cook County sheriff's officials.
"There is going to be a learning curve for prosecutors and law enforcement as people carrying concealed weapons on our streets in Illinois becomes a reality, particularly in Cook County," said Cara Smith, spokeswoman for Sheriff Tom Dart.
"We are very heavily populated and also home to a tremendous amount of gun violence. ... It will be a challenge on multiple fronts," she said.
There are serious penalties for violations. The first offense is a Class B misdemeanor, which has a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail and a $2,500 fine. A second violation is a Class A misdemeanor, which could result in up to a year in jail, a $2,500 fine and a six-month suspension of the concealed carry license. A three-time offender could get the same jail sentence, the same fine and a permanent revocation of the concealed carry license.
Lawmakers were forced to cobble together the new law after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the state's long-standing concealed carry ban in December 2012.
Some gun rights supporters said the law is needlessly complicated because legislators had to try to appease the anti-gun lobby in Chicago as well as the pro-gun lobby Downstate in order to get it through the General Assembly. Gun supporters point to discrepancies in the law, such as firearms being off-limits in Cook County Forest Preserves but legal in forest preserves in the rest of the state.
"We proposed laws like those in effect in other states, but instead they chose to reinvent the wheel," said David Lawson, who teaches courses along with his wife, Colleen, and pushed for concealed carry in Springfield. "There are a lot of 'gotchas' in there, particularly when it comes to public transportation."
For anti-gun advocates in Chicago, prohibiting guns on public trains and buses was an important issue. But David Lawson said such restrictions place an unnecessary burden on gun carriers.
As an example, he described a scenario in which an armed person goes to a restaurant for a meal and decides to take a CTA train home. In that case, the permit holder would have to unload the gun and put it in a purse, backpack or other encasement. But the trick is removing it from the holster and unloading it, he said. That can't be done in public view.
"You can't even go to a restroom inside the station and do it," Lawson said. To do it legally, the carrier would have to find a place nearby that allows firearms and go there to unload and put away the gun, he said.
Todd Vandermyde, an Illinois lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said this is what happens when a bill is rushed through the legislature in 24 hours. But he said he is confident that the law won't be as difficult to follow as some people might fear.
"Some people are overly cautious because the city has a horrendous record," said Vandermyde, referring to the strong opposition to concealed carry by Chicago officials. "But you can't start flooding the courts with these cases. I have more faith in law enforcement than that."
Lindsay Nichols, an attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said there is no reason permit holders can't comply with the law. Her concern with the law is not so much where you can or cannot take a gun but who is allowed to carry one.
One of 42 states with a so-called "shall issue" rule, Illinois must issue a license to any applicant who meets the requirements, without determining whether he or she has a legitimate reason for carrying it.
"There's an approach that some states use, where you can't get a permit in the first place unless you really need one. That leads to much simpler laws and more straightforward laws," Nichols said. "It makes the community safer, whereas Illinois' new law simply requires the state police to issue permits to almost anyone."
While people on both sides of the argument agree that it is unlikely the state will reverse its "shall issue" status, lawmakers likely will have to confront other issues in the next couple of years.
In December, Sheriff Dart publicly raised concerns about the law, saying the application process was flawed and could lead to guns ending up in the hands of the mentally ill and people arrested for domestic violence or gang crimes. He said the law needs to be more stringent, barring people with a single arrest for such offenses.
He said he would consider filing a lawsuit to stop what he called an "absolutely absurd" approval process that would force his office to file individual objections to applications his office deems unacceptable. Such a legal move could affect more than 150,000 applications the Illinois State Police expects to receive from Cook County residents alone beginning Jan. 5.
The state has 90 days to process the applications, meaning it could be April before most licenses are issued.
Other states have grappled with questions about guns in the workplace, both inside the building and in the parking lot, and the thorny issue of carrying guns on private property, such as in retail stores and movie theaters.
While Illinois law allows businesses to ban guns on their premises by posting a sign, some business owners have said it places too much of the burden on them. They said it forces them to make a political statement and to take too much responsibility in protecting their employees and consumers.
One of the most high-profile cases involved Starbucks, which in September asked customers to stop bringing firearms into its stores and outdoor seating areas, creating a firestorm of protests from pro-gun advocates. The coffee store chain stopped short of banning guns but made it clear that guns were unwelcome.
As far as gun control advocates are concerned, there are two key issues: keeping guns out of places where alcohol is consumed and sensitive areas where children and families gather. But pro-gun advocates said that would make firearms illegal just about everywhere.
"There are things in the law that complicate the issues," said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association. "Those things haven't been a problem for permit holders in other states, and they won't be in Illinois. They need to be streamlined so it's not a prohibiter to the cardholders."
One of the things Pearson and other gun-rights advocates tell people is to be patient as the public gets used to the idea of concealed carry. In time, they insist, laws will loosen up in Illinois, just as they did in other states.
Brian Malte, national policy director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the NRA has a track record of getting states to gradually ease up on requirements, often after initially throwing its support behind tougher standards.
"They got legislators to agree that certain places were not appropriate for firearms, that there should be training and that there should be background checks. And year by year, brick by brick, they go out to repeal these things they helped set up," Malte said. "It's all kind of done in the backroom where the public may not be paying close enough attention. And 10 years later, your concealed carry law looks a lot different than it did when it first started."
Pearson said people are worried about the criminal misuse of firearms and want to unfairly punish the law-abiding community.
"If you're walking through an outdoor art show and you can't stop and take a look at the art, it doesn't make sense," Pearson said. "The legal permit carriers aren't the problem. The people who are the problem are the gangbangers, the illegal carriers of firearms, the drug dealers.
"I'm sure if they're carrying and want to stop and look at the artwork, they will."