SPRINGFIELD -- The Illinois House will break down the issue of carrying concealed firearms into more than two dozen votes in a seldom-used process beginning Tuesday.
House Speaker Michael Madigan is using the so-called weekly order of business to allow lawmakers to submit amendments to a gun-control bill he intentionally left blank. That allows legislators to go on the record as voting `yes' or `no' on controversial pieces of an issue that has pitted urban Democrats against their colleagues downstate.
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Lawmakers added 27 such amendments on Monday. Among the most divisive are competing provisions that would either require Illinois to issue concealed-carry permits to anyone who meets specific criteria or to allow local law enforcement the final say.
A Madigan spokesman said the debate would begin Tuesday but continue at various times in the coming days or weeks.
The state has been ordered by the federal courts to adopt a concealed-carry law by June 9. Illinois is the only state that still bans concealed weapons, which the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December was unconstitutional.
"One thing I'm happy with is we're having this discussion. I think they know the courts mean business," said Rep. Brandon Phelps. The southern Illinois Democrat, unlike some more liberal Democrats in urban settings such as Chicago, wants to require the state to issue permits to anyone who meets minimum requirements such as passing a background check and takes training courses.
Madigan is a Democrat from Chicago, where rampant gun violence is a deeply rooted worry and tighter restrictions are generally favored more than in downstate areas. Although Democrats hold a solid majority in the Illinois House, which Madigan leads, the party is largely divided on gun-control issues between urban anti-gun liberals and southern Illinois moderates and conservatives who hold the Second Amendment dearly.
The speaker's approach allows political protection, said Kent Redfield, a former House staff member and retired political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
A comprehensive "clean bill," such as one Phelps has introduced, would require a single yes or no, without nuances that can be explained away at election time. Redfield said the Madigan process allows Democrats, who understand the state must adopt gun legislation, to nonetheless vote against provisions they find particularly distasteful and politically risky.
"An up-or-down vote on a clean bill, you either voted for or against," he said. "If you allow a bunch of votes, then people can be on specific roll calls for specific provisions and he can give them some cover" from outraged voters.
Gun-rights supporters have been in the driver's seat since the federal court ruling in December. And on Friday, the appeals court refused Attorney General Lisa Madigan's plea for a rehearing. That leaves the Democrat, the speaker's daughter, the option of seeking U.S. Supreme Court review, a decision she has yet to make.
In 2011, long before the court ruling, Phelps narrowly lost a concealed-carry vote in the House. He's introduced similar legislation this year that has lured 46 co-sponsors. He acknowledged Monday that he would prefer his bill get a vote on the House floor, but said he understood the House speaker's reasoning.
"He wants to give everybody a fair debate and see who wins," Phelps said.
Phelps is carrying the crucial amendment that would make Illinois a "shall issue" state, meaning any applicant who passes background checks and takes training courses would be granted a conceal-carry permit.
Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Chicago Democrat, has submitted the counter amendment that would create a "may issue" procedure, in which law enforcement officials could choose not to honor a permit application. Zalewski did not return a call seeking comment Monday.