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Shooting could drive Ill. gun debate, or muddy it

SPRINGFIELD – In a state where the gun rights debate was already accelerating, top Illinois Democrats responded Monday to the nation’s latest mass shooting with demands for a ban on assault weapons, but other lawmakers cautioned against letting passions and a mixing of issues cloud negotiations over concealed carry and other gun matters.

The elementary school shooting Friday in Newtown, Conn., which left 28 people dead, came days after gun advocates celebrated a federal appeals court ruling that Illinois’ concealed-carry ban is unconstitutional. Neither event dislodged deep-rooted beliefs on either side of the issue, but gun control advocates cited the shooting to push for restrictions.

Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, both Democrats, announced support for banning assault-style weapons despite how legislators in Springfield handed Quinn a resounding defeat on the issue last month.

Quinn promised to promote the issue anew when the Legislature reconvenes in January, hours after Emanuel made a plea for such a ban on the city, state and federal levels.

“Losing children, losing those heroic teachers who tried to save their children’s lives ... strikes the conscience of all of us,” Quinn said. “One way to keep faith with those victims of that massacre ... is for Illinois, the heart of heartland, to ban assault weapons.”

But gun rights advocates who have fought for conceal and carry in Illinois worry that the focus on semiautomatic weapons after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy will overshadow discussions on how to legalize carrying firearms by law-abiding people in Illinois.

“What happened in Connecticut was not a concealed-carry issue, it was an evil person,” said Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat who is the General Assembly’s chief sponsor of conceal-and-carry legislation.

Phelps was ecstatic with the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals’ ruling last week. The court decreed that Illinois has six months to approve a concealed-carry law. Mindful of the tragic shooting Friday, he still suggests that those who favor gun rights hold the cards and a concealed-carry law takes effect regardless of whether the Legislature acts.

And his supporters believe what gun advocates across the nation believe – that for any argument against guns supported by the Connecticut disaster, there is an argument in favor.

Rep. John Cabello, a Machesney Park Republican on leave from his job as a Rockford police detective, said the court order “forces our hand” to approve a gun-carrying law, but “cooler minds still have to prevail with how we craft it.” Connecticut is a reminder, he said, that bad people get ahold of guns regardless of the law.

“You have all these criminals breaking the law,” Cabello said. “It doesn’t matter if conceal and carry is in place or not, they’re still breaking the law, and you have law-abiding people who have to be able to protect themselves against these criminals.”

Cabello, like many of his colleagues, believe an assault-weapons ban should be left to Congress to debate.

Democratic Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, contended that when Quinn used amendatory veto powers to rewrite a somewhat innocuous ammunition bill to ban assault weapons, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly against him in a tally that was “predominantly a vote on the issue” of assault weapons.

Pro-gun Rep. Darlene Senger, R-Naperville, said constituents since Friday haven’t changed their position on concealed-carry, but indicated they still consider some places – schools, churches, parks – off-limits to firearms. But she urged her colleagues not to overreach because no legislation will cover every possibility.

“Things like this are going to happen and each case is different on why it came about,” Senger said. “You can’t overthink. Everything is going to be unique.”

Rep. Will Davis, a Homewood Democrat and leader of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, said Phelps has a good opportunity to negotiate legislation with common-sense restrictions.

Many caucus members traditionally favor gun control, but Davis is willing to talk about a deal: He’ll offer Chicago-area support for concealed-carry in exchange for downstate agreement on a process to clear some criminal records, an issue that black lawmakers have pushed because youthful convictions often keep law-abiding adult constituents from getting jobs.

But Mautino agreed with Phelps that given the court ruling, gun advocates no longer need to bother with deal-making. At the same time, Mautino wants a measure that ensures people carrying weapons are trained and do not have mental health problems.

And such restrictions, according to Rep. Al Riley, are what lawmakers should take from the Connecticut tragedy.

“What’s clear is that any bill that we have, have some safeguards along the lines of mental health ... and training,” said the Olympia Fields Democrat, who voted against Phelps’ last concealed-carry bill. “At minimum, if someone is going to carry a deadly weapon, loaded, on their person, no matter what comes up, you would think that they should have the bare minimum of training to be able to use the weapons that they propose to carry.

“The Connecticut tragedy, if nothing else,” he said, “drives that.”

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