SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — At an Illinois House committee hearing Thursday, researchers and community activists said having fewer firearms in communities will help stop bloodshed — from the persistent gun violence haunting Chicago to mass shootings like the one at a suburban July Fourth parade — but this must be followed by programs to change attitudes and give people alternatives.
Democrats who control the General Assembly are positioning a wide-ranging gun law for a vote as early as next month, during a lame-duck session. That follows Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s call last summer for a semi-automatic weapons ban, following the parade massacre that killed seven and injured 30 in Highland Park.
The House Judiciary-Criminal Law Committee is conducting hearings on the proposed legislation, which would ban semi-automatic weapons, restrict gun possession by those younger than 21 and toughen so-called “red flag” laws that allow removing guns from a dangerous person for up to a year instead of six months.
“The goal is to make sure we’re keeping dangerous weapons from those who shouldn’t have them,” said the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Morgan, a Democrat from the Chicago suburb of Deerfield who attended the Highland Park parade.
Critics told the committee the law would do little to curb violence, and would likely be unconstitutional.
Chicago resident Andrew Guadarrama recited a list of U.S. Supreme Court cases he said would prohibit implementation the proposed gun law.
“To disarm the people would not save lives. … Criminals do not follow laws,” Guadarrama said.
The Protect Illinois Communities Act puts gun violence back at the top of lawmakers’ agenda following the Highland Park shooting — as it did after a man killed five co-workers at an Aurora warehouse in 2019 and five students were fatally wounded and 17 injured at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb in 2008.
There are enough Democrats in both the House and Senate to approve the legislation without Republican assistance. But firearms restraints are always a tough sell for Democrats from central and southern Illinois, where hunters and sports shooters see guns far differently than their counterparts in urban areas like Chicago.
Witnesses such as Leo Smith of the anti-violence group Chicago CRED said increased investment in neighborhoods troubled by violence has made a difference. Delrice Adams, executive director of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, cited statistics supporting the plan, including the decrease in violence from 1994 to 2004 when the federal government banned semi-automatic weapons.
But even supporters of the legislation emphasized that it takes more than a gun ban. Programs and professionals are needed to help young people escape the streets and change their attitudes about the future.
“I’m all for the ban of assault weapons, I wish all guns were off the street, but that’s not reality,” said Joseph Saunders, an activist and mentor on Chicago’s South Side.
“We’ve got hearts that need to be changed, minds that need to be changed,” he said. “If all guns were non-existent, and the heart and the mind have not changed, they’re going to go with knives, anything they can pick up.”
The proposal would ban semi-automatic weapons and .50-caliber guns and cartridges. It does not offer a definition of the firearms that qualify. Instead, it lists 49 specific types or brands of rifles, including the AR-15 and AK-47, and 20 types of pistols.
People under age 21 currently can obtain a Firearm Owners Identification card with the consent of a parent or guardian, but the measure would prohibit those under 21 who are not in the military from getting the card. They could hunt under the supervision of a guardian who has a gun owner ID.
A court-ordered Firearm Restraining Order could be issued for a year, instead of six months. The bill would also bolster the power of the Illinois State Police to target trafficking of illegal guns from outside state lines, working with federal authorities.
Rep. Tony McCombie, a Republican from the western Illinois city of Savannah, said rather than protect communities, the plan would jeopardize safety.
“This will leave communities, women unprotected,” said McCombie, who will be the House Minority Leader when a new Legislature is seated next month. “They’ll be unprotected and ultimately victimized. This is ineffective and unconstitutional.”
Abraham Avalos of Waukegan, north of Chicago, who participated in the Highland Park parade and said he helped bandage the wounded, argued the proposal would not offer the protection promised in its name.
“We know there are people who respect life, and those who don’t respect life,” Avalos said. “That’s why I carry a gun, to protect my life, to protect my family’s life, to protect my friends’ lives.”
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