Kotowski a central player in gun debate

SPRINGFIELD - Before being elected to the state Senate, Democrat Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge was a visible player in the emotional debate over guns in Illinois.

Kotowski worked for six years as the executive director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, making him one of the state's top gun control lobbyists.

He was first spurred to volunteer for the group after being robbed on an L platform in Chicago and he met his wife - then a fellow volunteer - through the organization. So for many yearly debates at the capitol over whether further firearm restrictions should be enacted or Illinoisans should be allowed to carry concealed weapons, Kotowski was a voice for gun control advocates in the often divisive debate.

Now, as both sides are set to clash on the issue, Kotowski could stand to be a player in that debate. Gov. Pat Quinn, in his annual "State of the State" speech Wednesday, called for a ban on assault weapons in Illinois as well as limits on ammunition magazines, a proposal Kotowski was pushing last month.

Meanwhile, supporters of the right to carry concealed weapons have a lawsuit pending appeal that says lawmakers have to approve a policy allowing concealed weapons within the next six months.

House Speaker Michael Madigan Thursday announced two hearings on gun-related proposals in the coming weeks.

But the politics of guns in Illinois are complicated, with strong opposition to further gun limits not only from many suburban and downstate Republicans but also from many downstate Democrats. Getting anything done on either side might require a delicate dance.

"There are reasonable steps we can take to make sure that we strike the proper balance between making sure people are able to still exercise their rights and their freedoms," Kotowski said, "while also making sure we move heaven and earth to protect and keep safe the people who are at risk and who are vulnerable."

No matter how passionately Kotowski makes the point, he knows there will be stiff opposition to any restrictions. And though lawmakers haven't officially debated gun control or concealed carry since they were sworn in last month, the debate is brewing behind the scenes - sometimes literally.

State Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat from deep southern Illinois, was last week pacing the hallways behind the Illinois House chamber, doing an interview via cellphone with a local radio station.

Phelps is a leader on the push to allow more Illinoisans to carry concealed firearms, a perennial effort in Illinois that has so far stalled.

"I respect Senator Kotowski a great deal and got to know him pretty well," Phelps said.

"He feels as passionately about this issue as I do," he said. "Here's the thing, though, and I think Senator Kotowski knows this, we have a court ruling in our favor."

A federal appellate court has ruled Illinois has six months to enact a concealed carry law, which would make the issue ripe for debate this session. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has asked for another hearing, so the issue could get hung up in the courts a little longer.

That ruling doesn't govern other gun control efforts though.

In his first year in office, in 2007, Kotowski shepherded through legislation that required the state to check mental health records against applications for firearm owners' cards.

The law wasn't fully implemented when a gunman killed five students at Northern Illinois University in February 2008. The shooter applied for his firearm owners ID card in December 2006.

"Unfortunately, it looked like it would have had some impact because the person who committed the crime had a mental health background," Kotowski said.

Lately, Kotowski has worked as chairman of a Senate budget committee, a role that has had him in the tough spot of talking on the Senate floor about budget cuts decried by his own party, as well as criticisms from Republicans that the cuts don't go deep enough.

Kotowski's newly drawn Senate district, stretching west from Park Ridge to Schaumburg, Bartlett and Hanover Park, was by no means a safe seat in the November election.

And it was clear Kotowski felt the heat in his re-election campaign against Park Ridge Republican Jim O'Donnell, which had him canvassing neighborhoods and planting yard signs long before many of his Senate colleagues formally launched their re-election bids.

Even before he was sworn into his new 4-year term in January, Kotowski felt the heat on the gun issue, too.

As lawmakers' session wound down early last month, Kotowski had a small teddy bear on his Senate desk. A last-minute attempt to move legislation to limit the size of firearm ammunition magazines had stalled, but Kotowski had gotten the bear in an effort to make a point about gun regulation.

"Teddy bears are more regulated than guns," Kotowski said, arguing that while toys have to meet rigorous safety standards, guns don't have to go through the same testing.

The teddy bear, though, also became a symbol of the Newtown, Conn., shooting, as people across the country sent them to the town after the tragedy. So Kotowski's use of a bear would carry a dual meaning in the coming months.

"We're having a conversation about what happens after the gun has been manufactured, sold and then used in a crime," Kotowski said. "Instead of having the conversation about the gun industry and the type of weapons they're producing."

ŸDaily Herald political editor Kerry Lester contributed to this report.

Control: Lawmaker says it's time to focus on types of weapons produced

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