Illinois’ gun debate: Legislation, litigation and emotion fuel one of the state’s most polarizing conflicts

Born 10 days before Columbine, 23-year-old Nabeela Syed’s opinion on guns in this country began forming in the third grade.

It was that school year that Syed heard the jiggling of a locked classroom doorknob during her first-ever active shooter drill. On the other side was a local police officer who was there to test the elementary students’ abilities to protect themselves should a shooter enter the room.

Fifteen years later, Syed is heading to Springfield, a young Democrat who flipped an Illinois House seat in her local district in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. She was inspired to run, in part, after seeing politicians in years past fail to address gun violence even as the threat seemed to expand.

“A police officer came by and knocked on the door and moved the door handle to see how the classroom, a classroom filled with third graders, would react,” recalled Syed. “That to me was just such a jarring experience. Now, when I go door to door ... their kids are doing shooting drills in day care.”

Syed was one of 88 candidates in Illinois backed by state and national gun safety groups who won on Nov. 8 following campaigns in which gun violence often was a central focus. The election also saw the rejection of a gun-rights gubernatorial candidate and the election of two Democrats to the Illinois Supreme Court, which could make key decisions in cases challenging Illinois’ gun permitting system. Nationally, the lack of a “red wave” of Republican winners in races across the country was interpreted in part as a setback to the gun rights community.

But Syed still enters an entrenched and polarizing debate that is expected to remain intense.

On Thursday, Democratic state Rep. Bob Morgan, who was marching in the Highland Park parade when a mass shooter opened fire in July,, filed legislation that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and eliminate the ability for most people under 21 to get a gun permit in Illinois. It was the first step in what could be a long debate, if history serves as a guide, that could stretch well into next year, when Syed will be seated.

The debate is playing out in Illinois’ courtrooms as well, where those who support gun rights have filed legal challenges to everything from bans on carrying firearms on public transportation to the requirement that you need a firearm owner’s identification card to have guns in your home. All told, the Illinois attorney general’s office is currently defending more than 20 civil matters challenging some aspect of the state’s laws and rules around firearms ownership.

Those seeking safer gun practices and regulation have also turned to the courts. In the wake of the July 4 Highland Park mass shooting in which seven people were killed and dozens injured, victims there filed a sweeping federal complaint alleging widespread negligence by multiple parties, including the alleged shooter’s father, for helping him secure a firearm, and the gun industry, which is accused of engaging in false advertising to drive profits.

Meanwhile, the Illinois State Police have been working somewhere in the middle of the courts and the legislature, seeking to improve existing laws as weaknesses are exposed. In the wake of the Highland Park shooting, the state police announced it will implement fixes to both “clear and present danger” requests and firearms restraining orders, Illinois’ version of a red flag law.

History

Over the years, Illinois has regulated gun ownership in various ways. In 1968 the state created the firearm owner’s identification card, a permit issued by the Illinois State Police to people who wanted to purchase a gun. Today, securing a FOID card requires a background check, and the cards are subject to revocation by the state police. Nine states have such permitting laws.

The tone was much more civil back then, with firearms manufacturers taking out ads in national papers to state their support for several measures, including a permitting system.

Illinois added a conceal carry license requirement in 2013, which requires firearms training for anyone who wants to carry a firearm in the state.

Other rules and laws have been added, including the clear and present danger directive and the firearm restraining order, which are separate tools the state has to remove firearms from people who are deemed a danger to themselves or others. Both came under scrutiny after the Highland Park shooting, which authorities say was carried out by a 22-year-old man, Robert Crimo III, who had a history of threatening violence and posting violent images online.

Five months before Crimo purchased the firearm he allegedly used in the shooting, he was the subject of a clear and present danger request, a formal notification by local police to Illinois State Police officials so they can determine whether granting someone access to a firearm poses a risk to public safety.

The request was not retained in state police records, per the rules at the time. Meanwhile, there was no record that anyone — family or police — filed a firearms restraining order, or FRO, related to Crimo, something that would have allowed a judge to bar him from purchasing firearms, again, based on evidence that he was posed a threat to himself or others.

State police officials last month announced changes to both clear and present danger and FRO. Officials said they had developed a new FRO policy that includes specific guidance for law enforcement on how to use the laws. In addition. clear and present danger requests will now be retained for longer periods of time.

Over the years, the conversation about gun issues has only gotten sharper and more partisan. This is despite voter support for gun safety measures.

In the wake of a fatal mass shooting at the Henry Pratt factory in Aurora, the Illinois House passed a bill that would have strengthened FOID background checks by adding fingerprinting. The suggested change was based on the fact that the Pratt shooter secured his FOID card — clearing the way to buy the handgun he used that day — after a check of criminal databases by Illinois authorities missed his out-of-state felony background.

But the Illinois Senate failed to pass a bill with the fingerprinting requirement, with division breaking down along partisan and regional lines.

Through the years, the gun rights lobby has advanced its agenda with the help of the National Rifle Association and a large grassroots base, who mobilize against lawmakers when gun laws are debated, arguing that gun ownership is a constitutional right.

On the other side are those who see a country where tens of thousands of people are injured by guns each day. To them, measures like fingerprinting and background checks are urgent to address a life-threatening public health problem.

So the election of 88 candidates who had all pledged to support an assault weapons ban was a moment to celebrate, a key step in building on “an electoral and legislative infrastructure” that can pass laws, they said.

Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to Springfield until after Jan. 1.

It’s unclear if the current crop of lawmakers will take up the measure in early January or whether it will be put off until after the new legislature is seated Jan. 11.

Just minutes before Morgan filed his legislation Thursday, Syed spoke to the Tribune from a constituent event about the role she could play in the debate, should it stretch into next year.

“I would look forward to being part of the conversation, and offering that perspective of a young person who grew up doing active shooter drills,” Syed said. “This is historic legislation that would make a huge impact, but as we have seen with mass shootings, we don’t have time to waste. The sooner we work to make sure dangerous military-style weapons are kept off our street the better.”

National and state gun rights organizations, however, are not backing down, despite the electoral losses.

“Whether it be stopping assaults on our Second Amendment rights in the Senate or pushing Republicans in the House to go on offense, the fights we’ve waged the last two years won’t be slowing down,” reads an email that was sent out after the election by the national American Firearms Association. “We expect them to ramp up.”

Included on the email is an advertisement for T-shirts that read, “Compromise is just another word for Surrender.”

A day after Morgan introduced his assault weapons bill, the Illinois Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative Republican state lawmakers, on its website called the idea an “egregious violation of our Constitutional Freedoms not only as citizens of Illinois, but of the United States! If this is a sign of what will be pushed this coming session, we must be vigilant and ready to push back!”

Legislation

A movement to ban assault weapons gained considerable steam following the Highland Park shooting, when Crimo is alleged to have opened fire on the parade route with a military assault-type weapon. More recently, on Halloween, a crowd that had gathered on an East Garfield Park corner in Chicago was sprayed with gunfire by someone in a passing car. The shooting unfolded in a matter of seconds, and shell casings from four weapons, including a rifle, were recovered after 14 people, including small children, were struck. One person was killed.

As legislators made their way to Springfield on Tuesday for the veto session, about 100 of their constituents had already convened online, hoping to translate the sadness, fear and outrage over such shooting events into action.

The event was part of a new $250,000 campaign by Illinois gun safety organizations to host digital advocacy events and grow the base of supporters.

The group heard stories and songs about the toll of gun violence in Illinois. Then came the work — putting legislators on notice that these people expect them to do something about it.

As she toggled between screens, organizer Artinese Myrick walked participants through the first action: an email blast to House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch.

“We cannot continue to allow people to be hunted down when there are clear solutions on the table to end gun violence, like banning assault weapons and large capacity magazines,” Myrick, lead organizer for Live Free Illinois, said, reading from the script people would use. “It is critical that our leaders such as yourself take these solutions seriously and do something.”

Myrick then directed all participants to Welch’s email. Later, participants were directed to phone numbers and emails of other legislative leaders and lawmakers as well.

“As advocates it’s our job to keep the public outcry going,” said Kathleen Sances of the Gun Violence Prevention Political Action Committee. “Gun bills are hard, and it takes a lot of work. There is an investment in resources and time and blood and sweat and tears. We have to grow our supporters. They (the gun lobby) have been at it longer than we have so we are starting from behind. ... This is our largest investment in an effort like this.”

Richard Pearson, the executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, said that more gun laws — whether it be age limits on FOIDs or assault weapons bans — won’t reduce violence. More incarceration will, he said.

Pearson said gun violence would get addressed “if you’d put these guys in jail and leave ‘em there.” He could not provide studies or data showing the link between sentences and gun crime.

In addition to leading other nations in numbers of firearms, the U.S. already has high rates of incarceration, which, to some public health experts, points more to problems like the availability of guns and an inability to stabilize and support communities where violence happens.

Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart, who is prosecuting Crimo, countered that the answer will not be solved by punishment alone, but rather a combination of policies and laws that “address root causes before the bullets are in the air.” He also pointed out that the accused shooter in Highland Park, for example, had no criminal history or, therefore, a record of incarceration.

The problem is “too many guns, too many dangerous people getting guns and not addressing the root causes inside our communities and inside the human psychology that is causing the gun violence,” he said.

Should an assault ban succeed, however, the gun lobby will go to court to fight it.

“You pass it, you prosecute someone under it, we will file suit,” Pearson said of the idea of an Illinois ban. “We will go through the court system to overturn it.”

Court battles

The court system is, in fact, an active area for the gun lobby, both nationally and locally, and filings are only expected to increase with the recent Bruen decision, experts say.

In that decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a concealed carry licensing requirement in New York state law that said people have to prove “proper cause” before a license is issued.

The court found that the “plain text” of the Second Amendment, written in 1791, protected the right of the plaintiffs in the case to carry firearms for self-defense.

This reasoning could expose all kinds of existing gun regulations and laws to similar debate, said Cassandra Crifasi, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

It could become harder to argue that there is a modern-day public health benefit, based on current rates of gun injuries and violence, to having gun regulations to reduce the likelihood of people getting hurt or killed by guns, Crifasi said.

“We are actually really concerned right now. ... Even though there wasn’t this red wave in the election, the courts are going to be the ones deciding how to apply the Bruen decision,” she said.

Wheaton attorney David Sigale has filed numerous gun-rights related lawsuits on behalf of Illinois clients claiming their constitutional rights have been denied. These include four Illinois residents who have filed a federal lawsuit in Rockford claiming their right to bear arms is being violating by a state ban against carrying guns on public transportation.

Sigale also represents a woman who for several years has been challenging 2017 criminal charges filed against her for having a firearm, a .22-caliber rifle, inside her White County home without a FOID card. The case has already been at the Illinois Supreme Court twice and could be headed back.

Sigale said the recent election of two Democrats to the Illinois Supreme Court is not a concern; he trusts the justices will follow the law, which has been reinforced, he said, by the Bruen decision.

“I think the law has been on our side all along. But Bruen certainly reinforces what we’ve been arguing now for years in this case,” Sigale said. “ ... The (Bruen) court said you have to look at the history and tradition and the framing era to determine whether a firearm restriction is unconstitutional. ... I think when you look at the historical record, people did not need to get licenses and pay fees (to) possess a firearm.”

Speaking more broadly on gun rights and why there is push back on laws often described as trying to reduce violence, Sigale said laws and regulations run a risk of punishing the wrong people, like his client who had a gun inside her home, for gun violence.

“People who have done nothing wrong feel like they are being persecuted by the system because of real criminals,” he said.

Tribune reporters Ray Long and Jeremy Gorner contributed.