Ill. Senate Dems set up faceoff with House on guns

Caption
(Seth Perlman)
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, speaks to lawmakers during a Senate Executive Committee hearing on concealed carry gun legislation at the Illinois State Capitol Tuesday, May 28, 2013, in Springfield Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

SPRINGFIELD – Senate Democrats rejected gun legislation Tuesday that would have erased all local firearms ordinances, setting up a standoff with their party colleagues in the House over how to end Illinois' status as the last state to ban the public possession of concealed weapons.

The Senate Executive Committee approved its own version of a bill to allow so-called concealed carry without eliminating municipal regulations such as Chicago's assault weapons ban, sending the measure to the floor for a full Senate vote in the days to come. The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago, passed 10-6.

With just three days until the General Assembly's scheduled adjournment, the move left lawmakers in the identical dilemma over two of the most crucial issues they face. On both concealed carry and reform of the woefully underfunded public-employee pension system, Democrats in the House and Senate are touting rival plans, with no indication that either side will blink first.

Lawmakers face a June 9 deadline by which the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the state to end its concealed-carry ban, which the court ruled unconstitutional. If that deadline is blown, no one is certain what would happen.

Some say Illinoisans would be able to carry any type of weapon anywhere. Others point out that local communities – notably Chicago – could swiftly move to enact their own ordinances to restrict guns.

"We need to be cautious. There are going to be more legal battles," Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat who sponsored the legislation that overwhelmingly passed the House just days ago, told the Senate panel. "It's going to be taxpayer money wasted. I just think we can control this issue if we pass something, this bill."

But earlier Tuesday, the Executive Committee, controlled by Senate President John Cullerton, rejected the Phelps bill on a 6-8 vote. It had been brokered by House Speaker Michael Madigan, like Cullerton a Chicago Democrat.

Senate Democrats complained about the way that legislation would wipe out any city or county regulation on firearms, such as Chicago's ban on assault-style weapons.

It also would allow guns in restaurants that serve alcohol, while Raoul's legislation would nix packing guns in a business that serves any alcohol for consumption.

Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn said Raoul's bill would "place reasonable limits and restrictions on guns in Illinois" and allow local governments to "continue to take additional steps to ensure public safety."

Phelps said Raoul's bill won't pass the House. Raoul dismissed the notion, saying the rationale for House rejection "would have to be that they like weaker rules with regards to guns and alcohol or they want to prohibit cities from being able to prohibit assault weapons and exploding bullets," Raoul said. "Let them explain that."

As with the pension debate, it will take a negotiated settlement to get a gun provision through both houses. The Legislature must juggle a half-dozen other issues in the next few days, including crafting a budget for the year that begins in July.

Guns have long divided Illinois, the last state in the nation to exclude citizens from carrying concealed guns on the street. Chicago Democrats have backed strong gun restrictions while Democrats and Republicans in the rest of the state largely embrace strong Second Amendment protections.

But Sen. Gary Forby, the Benton Democrat carrying the Phelps plan, argued that with a federal appeals court breathing down the General Assembly's neck, it made sense for the Senate to adopt legislation that swept through the House, which is also dominated by Chicago Democrats.

"Nobody was happy with this, but everybody thought they could live with this bill," Forby said. "It came out of the House with 85 votes, from Chicago to Cairo, people voted on it, Republicans and Democrats."

Forby's and Raoul's bills are remarkably similar, with the huge exception that local regulations would be invalidated in Forby's. Gun-rights advocates say that's important so that there's one statewide standard and gun owners don't have to worry about differing laws in various parts of the state.

"There is broad agreement on concealed carry. This is a question about pre-emption that goes so far beyond the question presented to us by the court," said Sen. Don Harmon, the committee chairman and an Oak Park Democrat. "... To pre-empt every local government from enacting any law or ordinance relating to firearms is a remarkable 'ask.'"

Since the Phelps plan emerged a week ago, the powerful National Rifle Association has been silent, while officially taking a neutral position on the House legislation.

But lobbyist Todd Vandermyde told the Executive Committee on Tuesday that while many parts of the Phelps plan are "distasteful," compared with the Raoul measure, "it's a much less bitter pill to swallow."

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