Chicago updates assault weapons ban

July 17, 2013

By Patrick Smith

(WBEZ/Patrick Smith)
Ald. Robert Fioretti addresses the city council Wednesday as Mayor Rahm Emanuel looks on.

Chicago aldermen acknowledge that the tweaks made to the city’s assault weapons ban today won’t do much to prevent violence.

But, they said, it is the best they can do.

The Chicago City Council voted to add to the list of so-called assault weapons banned in the city, and--in a separate ordinance-- to increase fines against people caught with a gun near a school.

The state’s new concealed carry law allowed cities until Friday to update or create bans on military-style rifles.

“Now this isn’t going to cure everything, but we have a window and it would be irresponsible and reckless not to take this window and make sure that our laws were toughened,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.

Some critics were disappointed that the ordinance introduced by Emanuel didn’t include stiffer punishments for owning the banned weapons.

“The question is why wouldn’t we [increase the penalties]?” asked Ald. Carrie Austin (34th).

Austin, however, voted along with the rest of the city council to approve the amendment to the 1992 assault weapons ban.

Even without an increase in penalties, Austin said she still believes the changes will make a difference.

“Everyone says this is just something to just feel good, feel fuzzy. No. I don’t do things that are just feel good, feel fuzzy. I want to do things that are going to have some teeth to it,” Austin said.

Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) said the amendment is essentially toothless, saying the assault weapons ban needs harsher penalties, and the state’s attorney needs to enforce the ban.

“Otherwise, why did we have this meeting today?”

Fioretti said Chicago’s ban on assault weapons has had “very limited effect” since it was created.

In a committee meeting the day before, and again at the council meeting today, Fioretti asked city officials how many people had been shot with an assault weapon in the past two years in Chicago.

He said he still hasn’t received an answer.

“From what I’ve [heard] from people in the police department it is … one person,” Fioretti said. But he said that number hasn’t been confirmed by the department.

The Chicago Police Department said in a statement that about 4 percent of all guns recovered this year were so-called assault weapons.

Fioretti also seemed skeptical of another public safety ordinance, this one introduced by the mayor and who said it is meant to help improve safety for school children.

That ordinance, which also passed unanimously today, creates school safety zones within 1,000 feet of schools.

Under the new ordinance, anyone convicted of possessing a gun near schools, on buses or along designed Safe Passage routes could face up to a $5,000 fine and up to six months incarceration, with punishment increasing for repeat offenders.

Fioretti said he thinks the law will create more confusion than anything else.

But Fenger High School Principal Liz Dozier said the new law will help make students safer.

“We have to start doing things to make our communities a safer place for our kids to go to and from school,” Dozier said. “Our kids need to be focused more on their studies than … being concerned about their safety.”

Dozier said the new laws “won’t fix everything,” but they are a good step.

Pounding the podium as he addressed the city council, the mayor  insisted on the importance of the school safety ordinance.

“Today’s votes are the right things to do,” Emanuel said. “We stepped up for our children. The weak link to protect our streets are our gun laws.”

Emanuel and several aldermen spent some time complaining about the state’s new concealed carry law.

One after another, city council members stood to say they are doing all they can, but that the real power to improve gun laws lies with state and federal lawmakers.

“Down in Springfield we have a battle,” Emanuel said.

Patrick Smith is a WBEZ reporter. Follow him on twitter @pksmid