Some of the largest employers in the suburbs -- county governments -- may ban their employees from carrying concealed handguns in public, despite a new state law allowing it.
Cook, DuPage, McHenry, Kane and Lake are considering policies restricting non-law enforcement employees from carrying concealed handguns while on duty outside of public buildings, even if they have a valid state permit. Officials say they are concerned employees packing guns increases the counties' risk and liability.
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Such a ban would include building inspectors, health workers, planning and zoning officials, coroner's office employees, and any other employees who interact with the public.
The state's concealed carry law allows no one except law enforcement officials to bring concealed weapons into public buildings, including courthouses and municipal buildings.
Illinois State Police reported nearly 10,000 people in the Chicago area have applied for concealed carry permits since Jan. 5, when applications became available under the new law. Of the more than 23,000 applications statewide, Cook County received more concealed carry license applications than DuPage, Lake, McHenry and Kane counties combined. State police have 90 days to approve or reject applications.
Cook County, the largest in the state employing 22,000 people including roughly 5,600 sworn sheriff's officers, already prohibits employees from possessing unauthorized weapons at work.
The county plans to expand that policy to include concealed carry handguns and may even consider restricting employees from having the guns while acting in their official capacity in the field, said Kristen Mack, spokeswoman for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Prohibiting employees from carrying handguns is no different from other restrictions imposed to regulate employee conduct while on duty, said John Labaj, deputy county administrator for McHenry County.
"You can't smoke in your cars. You can't use profane language. You can't use cellphones now (while driving) without hands-free," said Labaj, adding that McHenry County adopted the cellphone restriction for employees before state law took effect.
Roughly 350 county employees are allowed to use personal vehicles for work.
"We have a lot of employees that are in the field," Labaj said. "We also have volunteers that do work in the field for our Emergency Management Agency. We were just trying to put in place some guidance about how concealed carry would operate. We didn't look at it as something we are taking away as a right of the employee."
Labaj said the county doesn't expect employees, such as a zoning inspector or code enforcement personnel, to deal with potentially threatening situations by pulling out guns in public.
"If they are in a dangerous situation, that's not in their job description to handle," Labaj said. In such cases, trained sheriff's deputies would accompany the employee "to handle those situations," he added.
Labaj said having a concealed carry policy would reduce the county's liabilities.
The county's management services committee recently rejected a draft version of a concealed carry policy, but administrators are working with the state's attorney's office to revise and re-present the policy.
"As staff we felt like we were being ahead of the game and frankly being proactive and responding to a recommendation by the Safety and Security Committee," McHenry County Administrator Peter Austin said. "In this instance, that maybe worked to our disadvantage because we couldn't draw on what some of the larger governments were doing."
The DuPage County Board also is likely to vote on an employee policy restricting concealed carry weapons next month, board member Grant Eckhoff said.
The state's attorney's office and the county's human resources department have been revising the employee handbook prohibiting any weapons, not just concealed carry guns, he said.
"Except for authorized people like security and sheriff's department, employees will be barred from having any weapons concealed carry or otherwise," Eckhoff said. "During business hours, it's not needed."
In Kane County, officials are trying to figure out how to regulate concealed carry on county property. Chief Judge Judith Brawka has suggested having gun lockers at the courthouse to prevent break-ins into cars where visitors or employees may have stashed concealed guns.
Members of the county's human services committee would like to explore whether the public or employees should even be allowed to carry concealed guns on public property. At a meeting earlier this week, several board members said the best policy may be to ban all weapons on county property for anyone other than law enforcement personnel.
Board members have not discussed whether to restrict employees from being able to carry concealed weapons off county property.
State's Attorney Joe McMahon said his office has banned employees from carrying concealed guns in their official capacity unless they are members of the investigative unit or are authorized law enforcement personnel.
Of the 130 employees at the state's attorney's office, only eight are investigators and not all are authorized to carry a firearm, he said.
"We started looking at the policy earlier, but the policy became effective at the beginning of January 2014," McMahon said. "The concealed carry law is extensive. It has 23 different exceptions as to where a firearm cannot be carried, even if someone is issued a license."
Meanwhile, Lake County is just beginning to research the legalities of the matter. The county employs 2,500 people, 350 of whom are sworn law enforcement officials.
"There may be a liability impact with regard to non-law enforcement employees carrying concealed weapons," said Rodney Marion, director of human resources. "We need to get an idea of what those liabilities might be. We have to make sure we can legally apply any restrictions on employees, and if so, under what circumstances. We'll have to do something within the next few months."
Marion said another thing to consider is whether the county can force employees to disclose whether they have a concealed carry permit.
"Because the law is so new, it's really difficult to understand what you can and can't do," he added.