At guns hearing, debate centers around concealed carry, not schools

February 19, 2013

The line for the general public to get into the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on guns Tuesday was already long an hour before it started. Anyone looking to get in had to get through two metal detectors and have their driver’s license photocopied.

John Laskowski, 60, got in late.

Laskowski is from McHenry County and said he was in Springfield anyway, so thought he’d pop in to see lawmakers at work for the first time in his life.

What he saw, for the last hour of the discussion at least, was a hearing with a particular emphasis on concealing weapons. Laskowski said he thinks there’s some legitimacy to the argument that concealed carry could reduce crime.

“People who suspect that there may be weapons available, in my mind, probably are less likely to go ahead and try to take advantage of someone that they presume to be vulnerable,” he said.

Laskowski said it is complicated, given the issues facing residents in urban, suburban, and rural areas of Illinois.

Part of the gun debate includes banning certain types of guns, so-called assault weapons and high-capacity clips. Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn recently said he wants to mandate schools across the state have drills for emergency situations. And, in addition, Illinois lawmakers are planning to address concealing weapons.

Illinois is the only state in the country to not allow concealed carry, but that’s likely to change soon. A federal court in Chicago recently mandated lawmakers in Springfield put something on the books by spring. That means the clock is ticking, which is where Tuesday’s guns hearing comes in.

Thousands of people submitted requests to talk. That list was whittled down to four panels, mostly made up of lobbyists or representatives of groups invested in the discussion; people lawmakers have heard from before.

“We have a concern that introducing firearms into the school environment would ultimately make schools less safe,” said Nicole Wills, who is with the Illinois State Board of Education.

Wills was part of the last panel, which spoke on the relationship between guns and businesses and schools. That panel was cut short because Republicans had the room signed out for 3 p.m. When one GOP representative turned around to say the hearing was being too rushed, the chairwoman, Rep. Elaine Nekritz, could be heard saying, “It’s your caucus,” a little off the microphone.

After the meeting adjourned, many involved in the hearings, including Rep. Dennis Reboletti, R-Addison, didn’t seem too concerned the schools panel was cut short.

“You know what, we had been going for three hours and I think people are very sensitive to the concerns of school safety and they’ll definitely be included in any type of decision, there’s no doubt about that,” Reboletti said.

In fairness, some school groups said they would remain neutral on certain proposals. Most of what was said at the hearing, lawmakers had heard before.

“I don’t think I gleaned anything else new, at least for myself,” Reboletti said after the meeting.

Some of the schools groups did make brief speeches, saying they want a seat at the table during negotiations —negotiations that aren’t a part of these hearings, but are taking place out of the public eye.

“I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations with a lot of the interested parties,” Reboletti said.

Those are conversations people like John Laskowski won’t get to see.

“There are no easy answers,” Laskowski said. “Definitely no easy answers. I don’t know which way this is gonna go.”

But Laskowski could go to another legislative guns hearing Friday in Chicago, where public officials who have already made their positions known on gun legislation are expected to testify.

There was one surprise to come from Tuesday’s hearing for some lawmakers. It came when Paul Castiglione, with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, said his office believes the federal appeals court doesn’t have jurisdiction over the state legislature.

"Only the Illinois Supreme Court can declare a law, a statute from this body of this state to be unconstitutional," Castiglione said at the hearing.

That was news to State Rep. Michael Zalewski.

“You kind of dropped a pretty big rhetorical bomb on some of us here,” Zalewski said.

Zalewski warned Cook County prosecutors to tread carefully because lawmakers are operating under the assumption they only have a few months to pass a concealed carry bill. He said he doesn’t want to see prosecutors from various parts of the state prosecuting gun crimes differently.

Other legislators say if no concealed carry law is passed by the federal court’s deadline, then anyone could carry any type of weapon anywhere legally in Illinois.

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