Every year for most of the nearly 20 years that Richard M. Daley has been mayor, he has pushed his people who work at the Statehouse in Springfield to get the Illinois General Assembly to approve a statewide ban on handguns similar to what is already THE LAW in Chicago.
The measures always get through legislative committees, where Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan – in keeping with his unofficial role of keeping the Legislature in line with Chicago’s desires – uses his pull to ensure that the issue gets a hearing.
THEN, THE ILLINOIS House of Representatives engages in a rare act of bipartisanship as rural and suburban lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, come to the conclusion that “the enemy” is Chicago. They gang up, and vote the measure down.
At a time when the rural portions of Illinois only account for one-third (at most) of the state’s population, this issue has become one of the annual acts of state government. They kill off Daley’s dreams of gun control to show him that he can’t run roughshod over the rest of Illinois.
The most recent political killing took place Wednesday.
This year, Daley allies weren’t so bold as to push for any outright bans on firearms. What they wanted this year was creation of a state law that would have required the sale of handguns in Illinois to occur only at federally licensed firearms dealers – who must comply with laws requiring criminal background checks.
IT WAS A measure designed by Chicago city officials to get around laws that allow private sales of firearms by dealers at gun shows, where background checks on the gun buyers are non-existent.
City-oriented officials argue that these private dealers are the loop hole by which handguns wind up in the possession of people who otherwise would not be able to get a gun, but rural people say the Daley-desired change in law would criminalize individuals who privately sell a pistol to a friend.
The bill received a 58-58 vote, with two other legislators – Eddie Washington of Waukegan and Jim Watson of Jacksonville – not voting because of excused absences. Had those two legislators cast votes for the measure (a long-shot), it would have passed with the bare minimum of 60 votes.
Now for those who think the city is being picked on by the rest of the state, keep in mind that Daley allies knew full well they would lose again this year. A similar measure had already been rejected this spring. There was only one reason for the bill to be called for a vote, and that was because of Wednesday’s date.
APRIL 16, 2008 IS THE one-year anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech University where 32 students were killed when a well-armed student went on a rampage on campus.
Every single one of the 58 state representatives who voted against the Daley plan now runs the risk of having campaign advertising used against them that tells would-be voters how their local legislator celebrated, so-to-speak, the one-year anniversary of Virginia Tech by voting against “reasonable restrictions” on firearms.
Some of the legislators who come from suburban areas (who are only voting against the measure because they are Republicans opposing Democrat Daley) could run the risk of losing votes from people in their legislative districts who are not government junkies and do not follow the nuances of every single one of the thousands of bills that come before the General Assembly every year.
For rural legislators, this is less of an issue. Many come from small communities where rifle ownership can often be a cultural tie passed down from generation to generation. They are more likely to want to believe whatever spin the Illinois State Rifle Association wants to put on the issue, rather than the Daley spin.
WEDNESDAY’S LEGISLATIVE ACTION is a case of rural Illinois exerting what little influence it still holds (as they will be the first to tell you, all of the state constitutional officers and the General Assembly’s top leaders are from Chicago) on an issue where it believes the city’s desires are too far at odds with their own.
It literally becomes an issue where Southern Illinois Democrats have no problem breaking with their Chicago counterparts to unite with central Illinois Republicans to show that they are united in their desire not to be an extension of Chicago.
One legislator, Mike Bost of Murphysboro, said he thinks this year’s measure would have made criminals of the gun dealers who operate heavily in his area, and would not have any significant impact on violence in the city.
“It’s not going to cure your problem with criminals in your city with handguns,” Bost told the Bloomington, Ill.-based Pantagraph newspaper.
“YOUR PROBLEM,” AND “your city.” That is the sad thing.
Guns have become an issue of regionalism overcoming common sense and a desire to reduce violence, made worse by the fact that “Illinois” is, at best, a theoretical concept – rather than a distinct region with unified interests.
This different perspective is not new. I still remember the 1998 Democratic primary for governor – when eventual nominee Glenn Poshard (who takes great pride in being a Southern Illinois native with no ties to Chicago) started off the campaign as an outspoken critic of any measures to restrict firearm ownership.
Eventually, though, even Poshard moderated his talk against gun control, often telling the story of how he visited a Chicago hospital emergency room at a moment when some shootings were being treated.
HE WOULD SAY during the latter days of the campaign (while trying to convince Chicagoans he was not some rural ‘gun nut’) it was at that moment that he realized just why so many urban residents wanted handgun restrictions and were willing to put aside the desires of hunters and the theoretical notion of the Second Amendment to the Constitution (which guarantees the American people the right to arm themselves so they can be in a militia).
Perhaps the key is to drag every rural legislator into the Stroger Hospital emergency room to give them a sense of the chaos that can be created by firearms in the city.
Maybe then, people like Bost would start seeing that there are commonalities in Illinois’ regions, despite the roughly 300 mile difference that exists between Chicago and his hometown.
Admittedly, Bost is from the region that literally is closer to Memphis than either Chicago or St. Louis – the two cities that 95 percent of Illinoisans identify with. That could be just too large a social gap to bridge.
BUT THERE ARE political people who live on the fringes of the Chicago area who act as though they wish they could put space between themselves and the city. They are the ones who need to have a little arm-twisting.
Ultimately, it will have to come down to Chicago’s political muscle being used to let all Illinoisans know just how much of an economic and social stake they have in an improved Chicago – one that is safe and secure both in reality and in perception.
The scary thing is that too many legislators would see this as an excuse to extort Chicago for some sort of local project. No matter what they might want to think, rural legislators aren’t any more ethical than their urban counterparts. Just think back to how many rural lawmakers were upset that they didn’t get more for their support of a Chicago Transit Authority emergency funding measure that finally got approval early this year.
Short of an extra effort by Chicago, there doesn’t seem to be any sense that the two sides will come together any time soon. In the words of state Rep. John Bradley, a Democrat from Marion, “we’re always going to have philosophical differences about the issues involving gun ownership in the state.”
EDITOR’S NOTES: One of the larger newspapers in central Illinois lays out Wednesday’s legislative activity on firearms sales restrictions (http://www.pantagraph.com/articles/2008/04/16/news/doc480676daa2d83486577944.txt) from the perspective of the rural critics of gun control.
Students at the University of Illinois are organizing themselves into a campus (http://media.www.dailyillini.com/media/storage/paper736/news/2008/04/14/News/Student.Org.Seeks.To.Permit.Guns.At.Illinois-3322182.shtml) organization that wants to be able to carry pistols around the Quadrangle and other parts of the campus in Urbana and Champaign.