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Thursday, March 31, 2005 04:07 am

Year of the gun

By now, you’ve probably read or heard stories about all of the gun-related bills pending in the Illinois General Assembly.

A large number of gun-control bills is not particularly surprising. Most that end up on the legislative calendar are introduced year after year by allies of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

What’s striking this year is how many pro-gun rights bills are moving through the system.

So far, most media attention has been focused on high-profile gun bills such as legislation giving people the right to carry concealed firearms.

But something else is going on here.

Emboldened by a major victory last year on a very narrow bill that expanded gun owners’ rights, the NRA has introduced a ton of little bills that nibble away at the edges of current gun-control laws rather than make sweeping changes.

All told, the NRA has almost 40 bills in the hopper right now, about twice as many as the anti-gun groups have.

Last year, the NRA was successful in steamrolling a bill through the House and Senate to exempt gun owners from municipal gun ordinances if they use the banned weapons to defend their homes. The bill surfaced after a Wilmette man shot an intruder with a gun that was prohibited by Wilmette’s strict anti-gun ordinances.

The Wilmette incident quickly became a cause célèbre, and the bill sailed through both chambers. Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed the bill, but the House and Senate overrode him in November with huge majorities.

Some of the NRA’s bills this year are logical extensions of the Wilmette bill. If it’s OK to shoot an intruder with an illegal weapon, the logic goes, then why allow the local ordinances in the first place? Bills in both the House and the Senate would preempt local control on this subject, although one preemption bill failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee this month.

Other NRA bills also seem reasonable at first glance, and even on closer examination. More than 20 years ago, the NRA signed on to an historic legislative compromise that outlined how gun owners could transport their weapons. But some municipalities, including Chicago, have severely narrowed those restrictions. So the NRA has introduced bills that would reimpose the statewide standard on the entire state.

Both of these concepts have been dealt with before by the General Assembly. What’s different this year is that the NRA has introduced different versions of each idea and done so simultaneously in the two legislative chambers, overwhelming the other side. The anti-gunners, who are accustomed to opposing a handful of highly visible bills every year, are now being forced to lobby against a ton of bills, not knowing which will be called for a vote or when.

The NRA has about a half-dozen bills mandating the destruction of Firearm Owners Identification card applications. The NRA believes that police can use the applications to track law-abiding gun owners. The police hotly deny this, but they and their allies are forced to expend enormous amounts of nervous energy keeping track of just this one issue.

In the Democrat-controlled House, the NRA’s bills are being allowed to reach the floor to bolster the reelection chances of downstate Democrats. If House Republicans have any hope of picking up seats, it will be largely in southern Illinois, where gun control isn’t exactly a popular subject. The NRA-backed bills will allow targeted House Democrats to greatly bolster their credibility with their single-issue voters.

But because Mayor Daley thinks so highly of his own anti-gun bills, the House Democratic leadership has steered most of his legislation to sympathetic committees.

The Wilmette bill and the presidential race last year, which saw Democratic nominee John Kerry waving a shotgun in the air at every opportunity, appeared to shift the momentum in Springfield toward the pro-gun side. So the anti-gun forces are running themselves ragged this spring, hoping to avoid another debacle like the November veto session.

The NRA doesn’t have the sort of national media attention behind its efforts this spring that it did with the Wilmette bill last year, but the group seems more optimistic about its chances than it has in ages.

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