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Ill. prosecutor criticized over concealed-carry

Published: Friday, June 7, 2013 2:30 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, June 7, 2013 11:26 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS – A state's attorney who has decided to stop prosecuting Illinois' last-in-the-nation ban on having guns in public said Friday a federal court's scrapping of the prohibition empowers him to let citizens go ahead and carry concealed weapons.

Madison County's top prosecutor, Tom Gibbons, announced the move Thursday and has since drawn criticism from several colleagues who question whether he's wrongly acting like a maker of laws instead of someone whose job is to enforce them.

A concealed-carry measure awaits action from Gov. Pat Quinn, but Gibbons said he's grown tired of the months-long bid to get permissive legislation on the books.

"As this process dragged on in Springfield, with all sides working very hard on it, we had to do something," he told The Associated Press on Friday from his office, northeast of St. Louis.

The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late last year threw out the state's prohibition, giving Illinois lawmakers a deadline to come up with a measure allowing concealed carry. The state's General Assembly signed off on a bill that's now before Quinn, who hasn't indicated how he'll decide it by a newly extended July 9 cutoff.

Gibbons said "it serves no purpose" to deny residents in his southern Illinois county from carrying weapons after the appellate court nullified the ban. Concealed carry is being allowed in the county only for those gun owners who meet certain requirements, he said.

Legal experts have said prosecutors are well within their rights to decide which cases they will or won't pursue. But several of Gibbons' colleagues across Illinois believe he's jumping the gun as Quinn still weighs the bill.

"We are a nation of laws, and we should follow the law and not pick and choose which ones we're going to follow," said Chuck Garnati, who's in his eighth four-year term as the top prosecutor in southern Illinois' Williamson County. "I commend the Legislature for passing the conceal law and sending it to Gov. Quinn. But until he signs it, it's not the law in Illinois. That's the bottom line."

Bob Berlin, the state's attorney in the Chicago area's DuPage County, said his job is "to uphold and enforce" and that's what he's sticking to as well.

"I'm not going to criticize what Tom Gibbons is doing, but my approach right now is: The law is that you can't carry guns," Berlin said. "Until we have a new law, it's not for me to decide what the law is."

While the 7th Circuit's nullifying Illinois' ban may have spurred confusion, "that does not by any authority I'm familiar with allow state's attorneys to interpret the law or fashion their own version when we don't know what the law will be," said Jon Barnard, top prosecutor in Adams County in western Illinois.

"State's attorneys are not legislators, and I think the most prudent course is to treat the law the way it is now – enforceable," Barnard said.

Law enforcement groups agreed. The Illinois State Police, Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Illinois Sheriffs' Association said in a "public safety advisory" after Gibbons' declaration Thursday that authorities "will continue to enforce Illinois' current unlawful use of a weapon statute in all jurisdictions."

Still, Gibbons' move isn't without precedent. The appointed state's attorney in central Illinois' McLean County announced last summer that he no longer would enforce what he called the state's unconstitutional, antiquated ban on concealed weapons. Ronald Dozier said then he hoped that would "make a statement to the Legislature."

Dozier, a retired judge, stepped down last October and was replaced in the state's attorney role by Jason Chambers, who said his office doesn't have an all-out ban on prosecuting violators of Illinois' concealed-carry prohibition and instead uses discretion in deciding which cases to take to court.

"Every case, every circumstance, every victim is individual," Chambers said Friday, calling the timing of Gibbons' move "baffling in that here the Legislature is on the verge of passing something and people are making announcements like this."

"It seems gimmicky," he said. "Counties shouldn't be fiefdoms."

Gibbons labeled his move as appropriate, noting that law-abiding citizens will be allowed to carry concealed weapons if they meet seven requirements including having a federal Firearm Owner's Identification card and undergoing a background check.

Since the 7th Circuit's ruling, Gibbons said, his office has been reviewing cases involving people accused of unlawfully using a weapon without it being related to some other crime. Gibbons is deciding whether to have those cases – a small portion of the office's overall workload – dismissed.

"That law was found unconstitutional, so that behavior [once questioned] became constitutionally protected," he said Friday. "The [7th Circuit] gave a limited amount of time to clean up this situation. But it didn't give relief to citizens for whom the Bill of Rights were written for."

In Madison County's Granite City, Shannon McEntyre applauds Gibbons' moxie. The owner of Rainbow Taxi Service said her 15 drivers deserve the right to carry guns for protection – and the sooner, the better.

"I'm all for it, because it is our Second Amendment right," said McEntyre, 43. "We should have had this a long time ago, and it's ridiculous we're the only state that doesn't."

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