July 1, 2013
By John P. Huston
State concealed carry bill has window for local regulation
Firearm enthusiasts and gun control advocates are flocking to municipal board rooms across the suburbs as towns consider outlawing or regulating assault weapons — before a state law forever eliminates their authority to act.
Many local leaders see it as an issue of preserving local control and exercising their home rule authority. Gun advocates call it an infringement on Second Amendment rights and a hasty move that has not been prompted by a problem.
Highland Park and Melrose Park banned assault weapons after public hearings June 24, and several other Illinois municipalities are scrambling to consider similar measures. Gun discussions are scheduled Monday night in Lake Forest, Skokie and Wheeling. Aldermen in St. Charles showed no appetite for action on the measure after their recent discussion.
The fiery debate was triggered when state legislators recently approved a bill to allow legal Illinois owners to carry concealed handguns. The law would pre-empt municipal home rule authority when it comes to local gun laws, but legislators created a caveat regarding assault weapons — it allows local laws to stand if they're already on the books or created within 10 days of the governor's signature.
Gov. Pat Quinn has until July 9 to sign House Bill 183, otherwise known as the Firearm Concealed Carry Act, which sets the clock ticking.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., was fresh on the minds of Highland Park residents who packed the City Council chambers to talk about guns. Officials there banned assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines — which includes the AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle that was used in Connecticut.
"We do not need Sandy Hook in Highland Park," resident Tom VandenBerk told local leaders. "People are being slaughtered because of assault weapons, because of an unregulated industry that has taken over this country in fear."
Mike Weisman, second vice president of the Illinois State Rifle Association, recently gathered a group of area gun rights advocates in Buffalo Grove and coached them on addressing local lawmakers at public meetings.
"One thing I said was, 'They are going to bring up Sandy Hook and what are you going to say?' It's hard to argue against Sandy Hook — other than (AR-15-styles) are among the most popular firearms sold, and it's not the firearms, it's the mental illness," Weisman said.
Other impassioned firearms owners have evoked images of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and other fascist, communist or terrorist regimes who disarmed civilians before embarking on bloody massacres. Some gun control advocates call it a paranoia-based argument, but Weisman disagreed.
"It's not paranoid at all, because if you look at Germany, they all thought they were highbrowed and sophisticated and that they didn't need firearms anymore," Weisman said. "Germany was very metropolitan and very liberal, just like Highland Park. 'Oh, we don't need this anymore.' History is replete with disarmed people being fodder for mass executions by their government."
Other gun rights advocates, like River Forest resident Richard Schnedorf, said a local assault weapons ban is a solution without a problem. He told his Village Board that a ban is unnecessary in the quiet west suburban community.
"Do we have a gun problem here? No. Do we have a crime problem here? Maybe. Do we have a gang problem here? No. We don't need this," Schnedorf said.
Highland Park's ordinance gives owners of weapons or large capacity magazines of 10 rounds or more 90 days to remove the items from city limits, permanently modify them to not fall under the law's definition, or surrender them to police for disposal. Violations will be considered a misdemeanor, with penalties that could include up to six months in jail or a fine of $500 to $1,000.
Its definition of assault weapons is modeled after Cook County's ban, which has already withstood several court challenges, according to Steve Elrod, the city's corporation counsel.
"I'd say Illinois municipalities are looking at the county ordinance because of that history," Elrod said.
Highland Park resident and gun owner Daniel Easterday said he will comply with the ordinance — he's found a location outside the city to store his AR-15-style rifle and magazines. But he has talked with an attorney about seeking an injunction.
He said the law was drafted too quickly and includes many unresolved questions, such as whether a legal handgun owner with a 15-bullet clip will be charged if caught passing through the city, unaware of the local ordinance. "Are we going to put up signs around Highland Park that say, 'No high capacity magazines allowed?'" he asked.
Melrose Park unanimously passed its ban on assault rifles the same night as Highland Park, Mayor Ron Serpico said.
"Nobody had any second thoughts," Serpico said.
A group of about 15 people who showed up at the meeting opposed the measure, Serpico said. Among the opponents were a local gun shop owner and several veterans. Serpico said he has been wrongly accused by some as being unpatriotic and anti-gun.
"At the end of the day is I don't understand why people need those types of assault rifles," Serpico said. "I'm not opposed to the right to bear arms."
Serpico criticized communities that are too paralyzed to ban assault weapons before it's too late.
"Sometimes you do have to take a stand," he said.
Several gun owners have threatened that court challenges could put local municipalities on the hook for hefty legal bills — an argument that played a small role when Deerfield trustees opted to pull back from an outright ban and instead implement storage and transportation regulations on the weapons.
As long as it approves the ordinance in time, the village can later choose to amend the language to include a ban, said Deerfield Mayor Harriet Rosenthal.
"We feel that it should be a state and federal issue, rather than a municipal issue, so until the state and federal government have dealt with it, we will have something on our books regarding safety and — if need be — we can amend it," Rosenthal said. "But that would be a long way down the road at this point."
Skokie's proposal includes only a "narrow" definition of assault weapons that can later be expanded, said village Corporation Counsel Michael Lorge.
"As far as we're concerned, it's a place holder until the legislature and the courts figure out what they're doing," Lorge said.
Among those who urged municipalities to act was Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon.
"The clock is ticking, so I encourage mayors and local officials to act now to ban assault weapons and retain local control over this important issue," Simon said, in a statement last month.
Weisman, of the rifle association, said he doesn't buy the "local control" argument, which he said was used in an earlier era on another divisive issue.
In the 1960s, "local control meant, 'No, we're not going to bus schoolchildren. No, we're not going to integrate our schools. We know what's best for our community,'" he said. "What if this was racial-based housing, and they said, 'We want to maintain local control,' how would that sound? That would sound racist and like it was violating someone's constitutional rights."