Suburban lawmakers may take lead on gun issues
SPRINGFIELD -- The battle over gun issues that has been waged for years at the Illinois Capitol has long been a fight between Chicago lawmakers who want gun control and Second Amendment advocates downstate.
That leaves suburban lawmakers often caught in the crossfire. And as the debate is set to reach a fever pitch this year, they could be key to victory for either side.
"The suburbs are the delicate balance in the debate," said state Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican and supporter of letting Illinoisans carry concealed firearms. "Suburban lawmakers will drive and direct the discussion on gun issues moving forward."
Passions on the issue run high, as was demonstrated by a massive rally Wednesday in Springfield organized by the Illinois State Rifle Association, in which thousands of everyday gun owners tried to speak to their lawmakers on gun issues directly.
Predicting where the chips fall will not be easy. The suburbs have never been more balanced between Democrats and Republicans. And suburban lawmakers sometimes stray from their party.
State Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, is a former gun control lobbyist and leader on the issue in the Illinois Senate.
"The suburbs have kind of been the center for reasonable positions on gun violence prevention," Kotowski said. "Democrat or Republican, the vast majority want reasonable gun safety measures."
Even though she's from the same party as Kotowski, state Rep. Carol Sente of Vernon Hills supports concealed carry.
"People seem to be so polarized on this," she said. "People are very split in the suburbs."
"I am centrist. I have a FOID card, and I grew up in a hunting family," Sente added.
Sente said the most important gun issue to her constituents was the concealed carry legislation, which she said should include mental health checks and significant gun safety training.
Kotowski said he's pushing to enforce the state's current laws that are aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of people considered by the state police to be "mentally defective."
Despite a law on the books, Kotowski said, only a few counties are tagging people as such in their system, meaning law enforcement would be unable to deny a firearm owner's identification card to people who aren't supposed to have them.
So far, most of the action on guns this year has been in the Illinois House, where lawmakers continue to take test votes on some of the details that could go into legislation in the coming months.
The biggest gun proposals in Springfield today include a ban on military-style assault weapons sponsored by a Chicago Democrat and one to allow concealed carry sponsored by a southern Illinois Democrat.
Republicans have largely declined to participate in those test votes so far.
State Rep. Barbara Wheeler, a Crystal Lake Republican, said she liked her party's decision, characterizing the Democrats' test vote process a "charade."
"I love the 'no votes,'" Wheeler said. "We are not going to participate in this. We'll have a real discussion when they are ready to have one."
The issue, however, will not go away.
A federal lawsuit has set a June 8 deadline for the state to adopt a concealed carry law, which has given gun rights advocates motivation to pass concealed carry in Illinois -- the last state in the country without it.
At the same time, mass shootings -- like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut -- have motivated gun control advocates to pass assault rifle bans as soon as possible.