CHAMPAIGN – With most voters focused on the economy or health care when they vote Tuesday, some in Illinois will get a chance to send a message about gun control.
Gun-rights advocates in at least nine mostly rural counties have placed measures on ballots asking voters if they want Illinois to allow its residents to carry concealed weapons. Currently, it is the last U.S. state where it’s entirely illegal.
The measures are non-binding, since no local law can override state law. But advocates hope the votes build pressure on lawmakers to support so-called “concealed carry,” an issue that resonates in much of Illinois and highlights the divide between Chicago’s powerful anti-gun forces and the rest of the state.
While Gov. Pat Quinn, a Chicagoan, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have pushed for tighter controls on guns, the Republican and Democratic candidates in one downstate congressional race say they’d like to see concealed weapons legalized. And a prosecutor in McLean County in central Illinois said recently that he wouldn’t enforce the state ban.
“Part of it, I’m sure, is that growing up in more rural areas, people have grown up hunting, shooting guns,” said Terry Patton, the Henry County State’s Attorney, who supports the legalization of concealed weapons. “They don’t have the fear of guns, maybe, that someone who has never held a gun or shot a gun in their life might have against guns.”
Patton said there are nights he leaves the courthouse when he wishes he could carry a gun.
“There’s a fair number of times when I’m walking out of the office at night and just finished making a lot of family and loved ones extremely unhappy, sending someone away to prison.”
Quinn has promised to veto any bill that would legalize concealed weapons, and earlier this year pushed for a ban on assault weapons. And Emanuel has pushed for statewide handgun registration as part of a tough gun-control stance he inherited from previous Chicago mayors.
“We don’t want situations when people can pull out weapons at their local grocery store, sports stadium or shopping mall,” said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.
The Illinois House last year voted down a bill that would have legalized concealed weapons, but the vote was close.
The idea of allowing people to legally walk around with a “deadly weapon” in a pocket or holster horrifies Colleen Daley, the executive director of the Chicago-based Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. She’s grown used to constant pressure from gun rights advocates to make it legal, but sees no reason to worry it will happen soon.
“Every year we do hear, ‘This is the year concealed carry is going to pass,’” said Daley, who isn’t related to the Chicago political family of the same name.
In addition to Henry County, the concealed weapons measures are on ballots in nearby McDonough, Mercer, Rock Island and Warren counties, Adams and Schuyler counties in western Illinois, Bond County in the south-central part of the state, and Stephenson County along the Wisconsin state line.
In Warren County, the man behind the ballot measure is 42-year-old Sean McKee, a computer-network administrator, husband and father who lives just outside Monmouth.
He started gathering the signatures needed to get the question onto the ballot after a series of break-ins in the rural area where he lives. He installed a security system but decided he’d be in trouble if he actually caught someone breaking in.
“What am I going to do if I pull up in our driveway and there’s somebody carrying out our guns from our home?” McKee asked. “I don’t have a gun with me.”
Gun-rights advocates believe the ballot measures are a good way to pressure lawmakers to try again, and a reason for optimism. Town hall meetings on the subject around the state have drawn big crowds in both counties with ballot measures and without.
“We had a standing room only crowd of 500 people” at a meeting in McHenry County in northern Illinois, said Valinda Rowe, spokeswoman for a group called IllinoisCarry that tracks gun-rights advocacy around the state. She lives in rural White County in southeastern Illinois.
While there may be strong support in some areas outside Chicago, it isn’t universal. State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, a Democrat whose district includes most of Champaign and Urbana, says she polled constituents about a year and a half ago and found that two-thirds didn’t want concealed weapons to be legalized.
But in the race for central Illinois’ 15th Congressional District – a largely rural area but including Jakobsson’s state House district and the University of Illinois – both Republican Rodney Davis and Democrat David Gill say Illinois residents should be able to carry guns, even on college campuses.
“That’s where bad stuff happens,” Gill said during an October debate.
A number of state’s attorneys, like Warren County’s Chip Algren, say that while they back the legalization of concealed weapons, they would first want restrictions – background checks, mandatory firearms-safety courses, and limits on where a gun could be carried.
“I don’t think it would be a good idea for everybody to be able to sit around a bar packing a piece,” Algren said, “or walking into a school with a gun.”