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McHenry County gun store owners sound off on renewed effort for state regulations

Springfield lawmakers are making another attempt to pass a law imposing a state level of regulation on gun stores similar to the stringent federal regulations they must follow.

Local gun store owners said the proposal hasn’t gotten better with age, and that state lawmakers are trying to shut them down and raise revenue for a broke state under the guise of improving public safety.

“There is no aspect of this bill that will increase public safety in any way, shape or form,” said Bert Irslinger Jr., who co-owns Second Amendment Sports in McHenry with his father.

Senate Bill 1657, which passed the Illinois Senate and now is in the House, seeks to add a level of state oversight and licensing on top of existing federal and state rules that govern firearm sales. The bill seeks to create a state licensing system for both gun stores and their employees – who already must possess a federal firearms license – as well as to make it harder for new stores to open.

To both Irslinger and Bo Strom, CEO of On Target Range & Tactical Center in Crystal Lake, the state rules are nothing more than a feel-good hassle that will increase costs for law-abiding firearm owners.

“[The bill is] a duplication of things that already exist at the federal level,” Strom said.

The current bill was filed by Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, and passed by only one vote, 30-21 – all three of McHenry County’s senators opposed it. The previous version last year failed in the House.

“This was a difficult and a controversial bill, I know,” Harmon said in a news release. “I appreciate the support of every senator who was able to put children and families ahead of the [National Rifle Association].”

But local gun store owners said the bill is not only arbitrary and expensive, but also will do nothing to protect anyone because it exempts a number of large firearm retailers.

Besides state licenses for both the stores and each employee, the bill requires continuing education and mandates that stores contain video surveillance and alarm systems, the specifications for which would be determined later.

Opening a gun store would require not only years of past experience selling guns, but also a letter from the county sheriff vouching for the requester’s character.

Implementing and enforcing the law would be overseen by a new five-member state panel, made up of a sheriff, an FFL holder, a lawyer, a representative of a gun-control group and a member of the Illinois State Police. The bill states that each member must have a “reasonable” knowledge of state and federal gun laws.

But while the proposed law applies to anyone who sells as few as 10 guns a year, its authors carved out an exemption for big-box stores, even though they account for a significant percentage of gun sales. A store is exempt if gun sales account for less than 20 percent of its revenue.

Irslinger said the provision makes no sense. He said smaller, privately owned, mom-and-pop stores have better-trained, professional employees who are much more likely to catch someone trying to illegally buy guns for people who legally can’t have them – or “straw purchasers,” in legal parlance.

“Are you telling me that because [big-box stores] sell other products that they don’t need as much training? As much regulating?” Irslinger said.

He also questioned how the state police and other cash-strapped agencies can afford to enforce the raft of new proposed legislation, which he said backs up his belief that the intent of the legislation is to be intentionally onerous. Although a fiscal note has not yet been attached to the current bill, state budget officials pegged the annual enforcement cost of last year’s unsuccessful effort at more than $2.1 million.

Strom said he hopes that the bill will fail in the House as it did last year. If not, he said he is confident that Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, an avid hunter, will veto the bill in part or in its entirety.

“It’s the same old story – when criminals are the only people able to get guns, as opposed to the general populace, you’re less safe,” Strom said. “Guns and gun ranges are an opportunity for people to participate safely in a sport that is enjoyed by a lot of people.”

There is a deep ideological divide among Springfield lawmakers, mostly based on geography, over gun rights. Chicago and north shore lawmakers favor stringent gun control, downstate lawmakers from both parties strongly favor gun rights, and suburban lawmakers are a mixed bag. Legislation that tilts too strongly one way or the other usually does not have the votes to pass.

Even if the bill fails, it caused divisions in the state’s gun rights community.

Aside from big-box stores, the bill’s authors likewise carved out an exemption for firearm manufacturers located in Illinois, which prompted the Illinois Firearm Manufacturers Association to switch its position on the bill from opposition to neutral.

In the wake of outcry from gun owners, Illinois-based manufacturers Springfield Armory and Rock River Arms, which help fund the association, severed ties with it last week.

More than 2.1 million people have state-issued Firearm Owners Identification cards, which are required to own firearms or ammunition in Illinois, according to state police records. The state has issued about 230,000 concealed-carry permits.

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