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Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012 01:55 pm

Firearms, medical pot and gay marriage, oh my!

Illinois could soon change drastically

When Illinois lawmakers return to Springfield early next year, they’ll face three issues more divisive than even the ongoing pension battle.  But like the pension issue, these battles have been brewing for years, and conditions now seem ripe for big changes.

The issues are concealed carry of firearms, legalization of medical marijuana and legalization of same-sex marriage. Each of these issues has seen a major shift in case law, public opinion or both over the past year, and with a spate of current lawmakers on their way out of office following a tumultuous election, the upcoming “lame duck” legislative session sets the stage for some potentially surprising votes.

The most recent shift happened on Dec. 11, when the federal Seventh Circuit Appellate Court ruled in a 2-1 vote that Illinois’ ban on concealed carry of firearms is unconstitutional. Citing an apparent lack of violence connected with concealed carry in the 49 states permitting it, the court said, “There is no suggestion that some unique characteristic of criminal activity in Illinois justifies the state’s taking a different approach from the other 49 states.”

Concealed carry advocates see the ruling as a trump card, while opponents in the legislature hope to craft a replacement law that conforms to the court’s ruling but still restricts the carrying of firearms in public as much as possible.

The court gave Illinois lawmakers 180 days – until June 9 – to enact a new law “that will impose reasonable limitations, consistent with the public safety and the Second Amendment as interpreted in this opinion, on the carrying of guns in public.” In the meantime, the court’s ruling of unconstitutionality is stayed, meaning the current state law banning concealed carry remains in place. The recent mass shooting of 26 people – including 20 children – at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., may slow efforts to enact concealed carry, however, because lawmakers may not want to be seen relaxing gun restrictions in the wake of a tragedy involving firearms.

The same election that ousted several Illinois lawmakers also saw the full legalization of non-medical marijuana in Colorado and Washington. That development could boost support for the legalization of medical marijuana in Illinois.

Colorado and Washington are the first two states to legalize marijuana, according to the national pro-legalization group NORML, though 18 states already decriminalized marijuana, treating its possession as a civil offense subject to a fine. Seventeen states – many of them the same that already decriminalized the drug – and the District of Columbia previously legalized medical marijuana.

Marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Some state lawmakers continue to oppose the effort to legalize the drug in Illinois for medical purposes only, calling it a “gateway” drug leading to harder drugs. Proponents say the state’s mounting financial problems make it harder to justify the costly incarceration of marijuana users who benefit from the drug medically. Public opinion still narrowly favors keeping marijuana illegal, according to a national poll conducted in early November by ABC News and the Washington Post, but the poll showed the proportion of people favoring legalization has reached its highest point since 1985, more than doubling from 22 percent in 1997.

The same poll also showed majority public support for same-sex marriage, at 51 percent. Similar results appear in other national polls, and researchers say support has risen in the past decade. That movement of public opinion could bolster an attempt to legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois. The state legalized civil unions for same-sex couples in 2011. Six states currently allow same-sex marriage, with 10 more allowing civil unions for same-sex couples. Still, 13 states have laws against same-sex marriage, and 18 states have a constitutional ban against civil unions for same-sex couples.

The Illinois General Assembly’s lame-duck session runs from Jan. 2 to Jan. 9, when a new crop of lawmakers will be sworn in. Sponsors of controversial measures often attempt to pass their legislation during lame-duck sessions because outgoing lawmakers are then more likely to vote for bills that may be unpopular in their districts. After the start of the new legislative session on Jan. 9, lawmakers must start over at securing votes for their legislation. That means if any of these controversial measures is going to pass, the most likely time is early January.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

Bills:

Medical Marijuana - http://ilga.gov/legislation/billstatus.asp?DocNum=30&GAID=11&GA=97&DocTypeID=HB&LegID=54410&SessionID=84

Same-Sex Marriage - http://ilga.gov/legislation/BillStatus.asp?DocTypeID=HB&DocNum=5170&GAID=11&SessionID=84&LegID=65291

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