Let's play a game of word association. You know, what image pops into your head when you see a certain word? And the word is — GUNS.
If those four letters evoke memories of a crisp, fall day in the woods, rifle at the ready, hoping for a trophy buck, chances are you're from downstate Illinois. If the same four letters produce pictures of a seedy street corner, a speeding car, pistol flashes and a bleeding child, odds are you live in the Chicago area.
Those vastly different perceptions help explain why the regulation of firearms in Illinois — perhaps more than any other legislative issue — is not a question of partisan politics, but rather of regional values. And they provide insight into what a casual observer might find puzzling in a legislature presided over by Democrats from Chicago, a city whose mayor is an unflagging advocate of stricter gun control, in a state governed by Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who championed similar restrictions as a congressman.
Yet as lawmakers return this month from spring break for what everyone hopes will be the final two months of the legislative session, most of Mayor Richard Daley's gun control package has been stymied in the Senate, including bills to license gun dealers, to limit handgun purchases to one per month and to allow victims of gun violence to sue a dealer who should have known the weapon's sale was illegal.
Meanwhile, a host of pro-gun measures await floor action in the House, after gaining enthusiastic committee support. Among them are ones that would:
- allow trained citizens to carry concealed weapons.
- strip home rule cities such as Chicago of their power to ban firearm ownership within their boundaries.
- reduce to 18 from 21 the legal age to obtain a firearm owner identification card without parental consent.
- require state police to destroy records of gun purchasers after background checks are completed.
So what's behind the apparent Second Amendment frenzy that seems to have swept over the legislature, dealing embarrassing setbacks to such gun control supporters as Daley and Blagojevich, arguably the state's two most powerful Democrats?
The answer lies not in newfound constitutional purism, but rather more prosaically in the sort of shrewd regional politics practiced so well by House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones, fellow Chicago Democrats and longtime defenders of the city's interests.
To maintain their respective majorities, Madigan and Jones need Democrats to win in downstate districts where voters' general misgivings about Chicago politicians are only heightened by city folks talking about more limits on gun ownership. For years, Republican candidates have been glad to feed those fears; indeed, Madigan and Jones each lost downstate seats in last year's election.
So don't expect either leader to lean on his downstate troops to support the mayor's package; two of the strongest backers of gun owners' rights, for example, are a pair of southern Illinois Democrats, Reps. John Bradley of Marion and Brandon Phelps of Norris City, whose districts are closer, in geography and conservative values, to the state of Mississippi than to the city of Chicago.
In fact, one might argue that the gun lobby owes its current success in the House to Madigan, who allowed most of its legislation to be channeled through the extremely hospitable House Agriculture and Conservation Committee, all but two of whose 15 members represent downstate districts, rather than the House Judiciary Committee that deals with criminal law and that held most of the gun owners' rights bills assigned to it.
So later this month, downstate Democrats and their Republican colleagues will have a chance to vote their constituents' Second Amendment convictions, while Chicago area lawmakers can cast the "no" votes city folks expect, giving both camps roll calls to tout in next year's campaigns.
Similarly, advocates of gun control will get their day in the sun, with a number of their proposals also on the House calendar, including ones that would mandate background checks on individuals purchasing firearms at gun shows, outlaw .50 caliber rifles and ammunition, ban certain semi-automatic weapons and require trigger locks on handguns. Most of these measures cleared the House Human Services Committee, whose ranks include just two downstaters among 12 members.
The odds are long that any of the legislation will make it through to the governor's desk. The two most significant pro-gun bills — to allow concealed carry and to nullify local ordinances — probably will require three-fifths votes because they would limit localities' home rule powers. The measures contain provisions to the contrary, but look for Madigan, or whichever of his lieutenants is presiding at the time, to rule otherwise.
In similar fashion, should any of the key gun control proposals clear the House, senators aren't likely to treat them much better than the earlier Senate versions of the same legislation, now in limbo.
While citizens from both camps might deplore such a standoff, the status quo has little downside for most lawmakers, who will have voted their regional interests with an eye on the 2006 election. And it could have a definite upside for the governor, who, of course, will be running statewide should he seek a second term next year and thus can't avoid antagonizing someone however he deals with gun-related measures.
Indeed, some critics suggest that Blagojevich has tempered his zeal for gun control to avoid further alienating downstate voters already upset about what they see as his Chicago-centric style of government.
Last year, Blagojevich tried to straddle the fence on the issue, only to have a gun lobbyist accuse him of playing Mayor Daley upstate and National Rifle Association hero Charlton Heston downstate. If he's lucky this year, a legislative stalemate might keep him in the wings on gun control.
Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Illinois Issues, April 2005