Wednesday, February 27, 2013

House feels out proposals on concealed carry of firearms

By Jamey Dunn

Over the course of seven hours today, Illinois House members went on the record on various provisions that could make up a final plan to allow concealed carry of firearms. Pension changes may get the same treatment later this week.

In December, the federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state’s ban on carrying firearms in public is unconstitutional. The court gave The General Assembly 180 days to pass a law to regulate carry. The court’s opinion said the state could set reasonable restrictions on carry, such as training requirements for licenses and banning guns in certain places.

Now, the House is trying to wade through the potential components of a plan. Lawmakers were faced with 31 amendments to House Bill 1155 today dealing with various components of concealed carry, including where guns would be allowed and what kind of licensing system that state might have. Debate lasted for about seven hours, and lawmakers voted in favor of 10 amendments. Amendments that were approved would:

  • Prohibit concealed carry in schools, libraries, government buildings and on public mass transit. 
  • Bar guns from child care facilities, hospitals and mental health facilities. 
  • Ban carry in gaming facilities, at amusement parks and sporting events. 

Lawmakers rejected amendments that would have banned guns at places that dispense alcohol, public gatherings, such as fairs, and on university and community college campuses. Rep. Brandon Phelps, who has sponsored several concealed carry bills in recent years, said that the amendment that dealt with universities did not adhere to a previous compromise made with the universities. “We had a deal. A deal is a deal, especially in this General Assembly.”

Republicans complained about the unorthodox process, which called on the full House to vote on complex and controversial amendments. Typically, such amendments are first vetted and approved by a committee before reaching the floor. However, none of the votes cast today were  final action, and HB 1155 might not be the final concealed carry bill. Republicans accused Democrats of trying to push them into votes that could later be used against them in future elections. “I don’t think this is going anywhere. I really don’t. We’re playing games,” said Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican. But others said they saw today’s events as a kickoff to the debate over carry. “People are going to get excited about some of these amendments, but I believe this is the beginning of a process. And I hope everybody understands that,” said Rep. Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican.

House members approved an amendment that contains concealed carry legislation similar to HB 997, which Phelps introduced earlier this year. His proposal would require applicants to have training and a shooting test to obtain a license. The application fee for a license would be $85, and the Illinois State Police would be required to issue licenses to those applicants who were eligible. The proposal would ban guns from several locations, including schools and bars. It would also allow universities and community colleges to prohibit guns on campus. “We believe we have a reasonable bill that complies with the court’s decision and directions. We should have one standard for our state.”

Phelps said language that would allow the state police to use discretion when issuing licenses could lead to cases of discrimination. “We believe that a bureaucrat should not dictate who gets a permit or [does] not get a permit.” Phelps warned that if lawmakers cannot get concealed carry legislation passed, there would be no restrictions after the court’s deadline is up in June.

Democratic Rep. Michael Zalewski of Riverside said that today’s session was useful for getting members to grasp the complexity of the issue and getting a feel for where their preferences lie. “I think we needed this particular day to ensure that people were aware of the issues that we face on this. Everyone assumes that we can just pass a bill and this will all figure itself out, but there’s so many ... factors that go into this and how we balance protecting public safety with the constitutional right to carry a weapon, so we needed this for people to start thinking about the issue.” He said the votes on the amendments banning guns were instructive about what proposals could receive support in a final bill. “We may not be able to put a restriction on what people do in a public way. We may only be able to regulate schools and mass transit and parks and things. So that’s my takeaway.”

As the hours ticked by, several amendments were passed over without a vote. Zalewski sponsored an amendment that would have allowed the police to use discretion when issuing licenses but did not call the provision for a vote. He said the arguments over more rigid language that the state “shall issue” concealed carry permits and his more permissive “may issue” language came up during debate over Phelps’ amendment. Phelps and other concealed carry supporters believe that “may issue” language would not meet the requirements in the federal court’s ruling. Zalewski disagrees. He said that just because 67 House members voted in favor of Phelps’ plan does not mean it will be the final language. “I think that it’s important to note that that bill didn’t get 71 votes. We’ve always operated under the assumption that we’re going to preempt home rule here. And if that’s the case, then it needs a 71 [to] 36 majority.”

During the debate, Republicans complained that Democratic leaders plan to address proposed changes to the pension systems for state employees in a similar way this week. Zalewski said he thinks the process could be even more useful for addressing pension reform. “Thursday, we’re doing the same thing on pensions so that will be instructive,” he said. “On pensions, everyone talks a really nice game, but no one’s actually had to vote for something [on the floor] yet. So we will find out if people are really wiling to raise contributions, and we will find out if people are really willing to limit [cost-of-living adjustments]. ... Forcing people to the table and forcing them to take hard votes, I think it’s helpful. We were bogged down, so we need to move the ball a little bit.”

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