Under Lock and Key: Gun control is a loaded issue this campaign season

Sep 1, 2004

Don’t go near guns. This is sound advice for ambitious politicians eyeing state office. 

Guns — specifically, who can own which kinds — pose a deadly dilemma for candidates craving the acceptance of voters from Cairo to Chicago. And unchecked candor can backfire at the polls. That’s because rifles, handguns, even assault weapons, have come to symbolize different things in different parts of the state, a political reality that makes the debate over regulation of guns and their owners a geographic and ideological shootout that is nearly impossible to win at both ends of the state. 

In the hands of gang members and drug dealers, guns made Chicago America’s reigning murder capital. With 598 homicides in 2003, the nation’s third-largest city earned the shameful crown for the second time in three years, edging out larger competitors New York and Los Angeles. Elsewhere in Illinois, guns embody a right bestowed upon Americans by the Second Amendment, an addition to the U.S. Constitution that came when the need for an armed militia was still a national concern.

This dichotomy is not lost on agile politicians. 

Gun restrictions have long divided the nation’s rural and urban populations. On the campaign trail this year, Republican President George W. Bush and his Democratic opponent, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, have made only cursory mention of the imminent end of the nation’s ban on assault weapons. Bush says he favors renewal, but has not prodded Congress to beat the September 13 expiration of the federal ban on certain semiautomatic weapons. Kerry supports the ban and voted for renewal, but ignores the subject on the stump. With rural swing states West Virginia and Ohio in play, he’s more likely to mention his prowess as a hunter. Democrats have shelved traditional support for gun control, a strategy forged in the heat of an intense electoral battle. The Democratic National Committee’s 2004 platform, a 41-page prospectus, even promises to “protect Americans’ Second Amendment right to own firearms.” 

The tripwire between the right to own a gun and the right to be safe from gun violence is visible in state campaigns, too, including Illinois’ race for the U.S. Senate. In fact, because it is so diverse, Illinois is something of a bellwether on the subject.

Alan Keyes, an ultra-conservative Republican imported from Maryland last month, is not gun-shy, unlike homegrown candidates. Before he arrived, there was scant talk about gun laws. Keyes, a veteran of two unsuccessful U.S. Senate races in Maryland and a pair of failed presidential bids, calls himself a “strong supporter of the Second Amendment” and has already tried to force the issue on liberal opponent Barack Obama.

Yet, even Obama, a Chicago Democrat, already has had to grapple with the politics of guns. This spring, before grabbing headlines at his party’s national convention in Boston, Obama uncharacteristically voted in favor of two gun-friendly measures 
in the state Senate. One, signed into law this summer, shields gun-wielding homeowners from lawsuits brought by intruders they have injured. The other would have allowed retired police officers to carry concealed weapons. That measure stalled, but in late July, President Bush signed similar federal legislation.

While Obama’s gun-friendly votes appear to be aimed at broadening his statewide appeal, he did vote against a measure to lower the state’s gun-permit age to 18 and allow the courts to look past local handgun bans in self-defense cases. Both those efforts were led by Obama’s colleagues from downstate, where the National Rifle Association plays a prominent role in politics. 

The group claims 4 million members nationwide. Its local arm, the Illinois State Rifle Association, refuses to divulge membership numbers, simply saying it represents “1.5 million gun owners in the state, some of whom haven’t paid their dues.” The group’s membership, however large, helped funnel $220,000 into the 2002 general election, mostly in the form of advertising and direct mailings targeting downstate House and Senate races. 

“There are very few lobbying groups that are as feared as the NRA,” says John Jackson, political science professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. “They are extremely well-organized, extremely well-financed. They are extremely single-minded, they won’t give you any quarter. They don’t want to hear about cops getting killed on the streets. They want to hear about their Second Amendment rights and not much of anything else. If you’re running outside suburban Chicago, you have to run scared of the gun-advocate lobby.”

Or, better, run their proposals. State Sen. Gary Forby, a Benton Democrat, advanced legislation that would lower by three years the minimum age for obtaining a Firearm Owner’s Identification Card without parental consent. Forby is vulnerable politically, as state Republicans have targeted his deep southern Illinois district for a major election battle this November. 

State Rep. John Bradley, who was appointed to his downstate post, is in a similar position. The Marion Democrat sponsored self-defense legislation, which became known as the “Wilmette bill.” It was inspired by a resident charged with violating the northern suburb’s local handgun ban last winter after he shot 
and wounded an intruder attempting to burglarize his home for the second consecutive night. Despite overwhelming legislative support, Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed the bill, saying municipalities should decide. Lawmakers will have to stick to their guns if they wish to override the governor’s will. 

While it was a Chicago suburb that prompted the legislation, the Wilmette bill proved popular some 300 miles south at the Williamson County Gun Club just outside Carterville. “I think Wilmette was totally off base,” Bob Ramsey, the club’s secretary and treasurer, said before a Sunday afternoon target-shooting competition. He was sitting in an easy-backed chair overlooking the range and its western border of tall pines. A century ago, the land encompassed the Dewmaine Coal Mine. Now, according to the club’s Web site, it’s the “home of the friendliest gun nuts in southern Illinois.”

“We have people from all walks of life in the gun club — doctors, lawyers, teachers, everything,” Carbondale dentist Mike Vancil says, underscoring the cultural role guns play in southern Illinois, a 
pastoral place that provides hunting grounds for many of the state’s residents.

Vancil proudly displays his most recent purchase, a .50-caliber Smith & Wesson Magnum revolver, 15 inches of stainless steel, billed by the manufacturer as “a hunting handgun for any game animal walking.”
Members of the Williamson County Gun Club speak authoritatively on current issues relevant to gun owners and are convinced of the merits behind the 
Wilmette bill and the push to lower the age eligibility for a state gun owner’s permit.

Others, however, may have been influenced this year by some timely NRA rhetoric, says Thom Mannard, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. Chicago and other 
Illinois cities adopted local handgun bans two decades ago, but Mannard says the Wilmette shooting gave the NRA a compelling story to mount an offensive aimed at undermining those laws. The war with Iraq, meanwhile, provided the wedge the NRA would use to push for a lower gun-permit age.
“They were smart in picking a time when we were at war, where the argument was, ‘Hey, if an 18-year-old can go over and use an assault weapon in the Middle East, why shouldn’t they be able to come home and buy an assault weapon without parental permission?’” Mannard says. “It was an argument that resonated, certainly, with certain members of the General Assembly during a time of war.”

The governor, a Chicago Democrat, stopped that legislation dead in its tracks. He had promised to sign the bill, but reversed course a few days later, after Chicago officials leveled harsh criticism.

The reversal drew fire from both ends 
of the state and the political spectrum. Blagojevich subsequently offered a seemingly impossible compromise: He would lower the gun-permit age only if legislators agreed to a state ban on assault weapons. Such a ban was considered along with other gun-control measures in 2003, soon after Democrats captured control of the Executive Mansion and both chambers of the state legislature. Those measures proved unsuccessful, and legislative leaders instead allowed pro-gun bills to advance in the pre-election session of 2004.

“I think part [of the reason] was trying to solidify those downstate Democrats, knowing that the national ticket looks [at the issue] a little differently than they do,” says NRA lobbyist Todd Vandermyde, alluding to Forby and other Democratic legislators anticipating tough battles with GOP challengers. “They’re trying to 
separate themselves from the Chicago Democrats and let everybody know, ‘Hey, we’re not all the same.’”

Likewise, Obama’s votes on two measures favored by the pro-gun-rights lobby appear to reveal an effort to appeal to voters statewide. 

It’s not a new phenomenon. In fact, Blagojevich is practically a case study in the effort to tiptoe past the gun issue. The governor’s office did not even respond to requests to be interviewed on the subject, though the next gubernatorial race isn’t until 2006. 

His record to date has been mixed. Blagojevich was an ardent gun-control advocate when his constituent base was confined to Chicago’s North Side. As a state legislator, he proposed raising the price of a gun permit, known as a FOID card, from $5 every five years to $100 annually. Later, he championed countless other gun-control measures as a member of Congress. But when downstate votes became critical during his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Blagojevich began assuring southern Illinoisans that their FOID card fees were safe from inflation. And, as 
governor, he has largely kept his once-fervent gun-control views out of the legislative process.

“There are a lot issues out there, and it’s up to him to decide which initiatives take priority,” says Mike Robbins, an activist working to prevent gun violence.

If the hunters and sport shooters of southern Illinois represent one end of the spectrum, Robbins certainly symbolizes the other. A 53-year-old retired Chicago police officer, he doesn’t own a gun anymore, let alone carry one in public, as federal law now allows. Still, he brings three bullets with him everywhere he goes. One is lodged near his spine, the others are embedded in his left arm, which 10 years ago was such a mess of shattered bone that doctors considered amputation.

He was lying in a hospital bed on September 13, 1994, when former President Bill Clinton signed the assault weapons ban. Three days earlier, a gang member had ambushed Robbins and his partner in a South Shore alley. Robbins managed to wrestle the handgun away from his face, but, as he did, the attacker unloaded the 9-millimeter, striking both officers.

Days later, doctors began counting the bullet holes, attempting to discern entrance and exit wounds. “They got to 12 and my eyes were wide open,” Robbins recalls. “Then they got to 13 and they were still going, and I asked the doctors, ‘How about, let’s just stop at 13?’” He was alive. So was his partner, who survived six gunshot wounds. Robbins’ 
subsequent recovery from partial paralysis and entry into advocacy was slow and purposeful. 

“I began a letter-writing campaign and that was part of my personal therapy,” he says. “I had to try to regain some of the dexterity back in my arm so I wrote longhand letters to state legislators and federal legislators, telling them over and over and over again my story and the dangers guns pose to law enforcement officers.”

Robbins spoke at the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and later appeared at one of then-U.S. Rep. Blagojevich’s press conferences, pushing for background checks at gun shows. He works with several groups, concentrating on keeping guns away from children.

“The guns are still out there,” Robbins says, speaking from the Grand Crossing police station where he used to report for duty. The lakefront district on Chicago’s South Side recorded 32 murders last year and homicides have kept pace in 2004.

That’s a far cry from the southern Illinois county that once earned the nickname “Bloody Williamson.” The warring gangs that sparred in Prohibition-era southern Illinois are long gone. And the county where union coal miners massacred 19 strikebreakers 82 years ago recorded just one murder in 2003, down from three the previous year.

At the other end of the state, Chicago’s 2004 murder rate is running 25 percent below last year, but three of every four homicides this year has involved a firearm. Last year, 484 of the city’s 598 murders were gun-related.

Staggering as those numbers may be, candidates seeking a statewide post most often would rather skirt the issue, lest they be portrayed downstate as a Chicago-centric “gun grabber.”

Conservatives also have seen the gun debate blow up in their faces. Democrat Glenn Poshard voted against most gun-control measures during the 10 years he represented southern Illinois in Congress. 

He softened that stance during his 1998 run for governor, expressing support for the assault weapons ban. Republican George Ryan exploited his opponent’s conversion, and Poshard later said the switch weighed heavily in his defeat. Two years earlier, a gun-control gaffe on the campaign trail effectively buried Al Salvi, then the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate. Already considered a staunch conservative on the subject, Salvi crossed the line by publicly repeating an untrue rumor he heard from supporters. He said gun-control activist Jim Brady had sold machine guns before he was seriously injured in a 1981 assassination attempt on former President Ronald Reagan. Salvi soon apologized to Brady, a partially paralyzed residential Medal of Honor recipient, but the political damage was done.

The impact of that one hasty remark serves as a lesson for current Illinois candidates. They are likely to try to keep the gun debate under lock and key this 
election season. 


The assault weapons ban

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 made it a federal crime for a private citizen to own or transfer ownership of any semiautomatic assault weapon manufactured after September 13, 1994. The law banned several weapons by brand and model name, as well as copies or duplicates of those guns.

Aside from those banned models, citizens can purchase new 
semiautomatic rifles as long as they contain only one of the following accessories: a collapsible or telescopic stock; a pistol grip; a bayonet mount; or a threaded barrel designed to accept a grenade launcher or a flash suppressor, which reduces the flash emitted 
during night shooting.

In addition, new detachable ammunition magazines were limited to a capacity of 10 rounds. 

The law, which placed similar restrictions on semiautomatic 
pistols and shotguns, does not apply to weapons or magazines 
manufactured prior to the ban.

Gun-rights advocates view the pending expiration of the ban 
(September 13, 2004) as a return of rights they were never willing 
to relinquish. They argue that use of the term “assault weapon” unfairly framed the argument in favor of further gun restrictions.
To them, the ban addressed only optional equipment and not the power of a semiautomatic weapon. Some compare it to outlawing automobile accessories while ignoring engine size. 

A semiautomatic weapon fires one round each time the trigger is depressed. Compressed gas expelled from one shot automatically loads the next bullet into the chamber.

A fully automatic weapon fires a succession of bullets while the trigger is depressed or until the ammunition is expended. Since 1934, the federal government has enforced strict limitations on private ownership of automatic weapons. States can further restrict the ownership of automatic weapons.

by Pat Guinane

SOURCES: United States Code, Title 18, Section 921; U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms

Illinois Issues, September 2004