Illinois Democrats put the finishing touch on a hectic lame-duck legislative session Tuesday by handing themselves and Gov. JB Pritzker headline-grabbing victories on gun-control and abortion rights while steamrolling vastly outnumbered Republicans in the process.
The array of legislation placed at the governor’s doorstep offered him major momentum less than a week into his second term and further cemented Illinois as a deep-blue bastion of the Midwest.
On one of the Democratic priorities, Pritzker was quick to act. He signed the assault weapons ban Tuesday night, mere hours after it received final legislative approval.
“It’s been quite a past 24 hours,” a beaming Pritzker said as he strode in front of cameras at the state Capitol for the bill-signing ceremony. “Yesterday, I began my second term as governor of the great state of Illinois, and today we made history, becoming the ninth state to institute an assault weapons ban and one of the strongest assault weapons bans in the nation.”
The governor paid tribute to victims of the “massacre” at the Highland Park July 4th parade, reading the names of each person fatally shot by a rooftop gunman armed with an AR-15-style assault weapon. It was a tragedy, he said, rooted in the fact “our state and nation have been held hostage by the NRA and their allies time and time again.”
Because of that stranglehold, the governor said, victories on the gun-control front in Springfield have been modest and far between — until Tuesday.
“That’s why today, I couldn’t be prouder to say that we got it done,” Pritzker said to applause from supporters gathered behind him.
The new law that takes effect immediately bans AR-15-style guns like the one used in the July 4th mass shooting in Highland Park that killed seven people.
Ammunition needed for those high-capacity guns also are subject to the ban on the manufacture, sale and purchase of assault weapons, though those who currently possess such weapons would be permitted to keep them so long as they register them with the Illinois State Police.
The House had passed its own assault weapons ban last Friday, but Senate Democrats added more weapons to the banned list and moved up the date to next July 1 when universal background checks would be required on all private gun transactions between individuals.
“The great people of the state of Illinois have been waiting decades for legislation just like this,” said Rep. Bob Morgan, D-Deerfield, a chief co-sponsor of the bill and survivor of the Highland Park mass shooting.
But GOP opponents in the House railed that the legislation wouldn’t halt gun violence or mass shootings and represented a clear violation of the Second Amendment, with some vowing to ignore it.
“Maybe the political winds are in your favor here today,” said state Rep. Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City, a key advisor to failed 2022 GOP gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey. “But I can tell you that we will not comply, and you’re not going to do a darn thing about it because the law, the Constitution and the founding principles are on our side.”
The Democrats’ victory on the assault weapons ban wasn’t the day’s only trophy for the second-term governor.
The state Senate and House both endorsed a plan designed to safeguard Illinois abortion providers and patients from legal attacks from GOP-controlled states with abortion bans that seek to block patients from coming here for the procedure.
Illinois’ plan also requires health insurers to cover abortion-inducing medication, HIV-prevention drugs, and hormone-therapy medicines used by people transitioning from one gender to another.
The measure follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the Roe versus Wade opinion that safeguarded abortion rights for a half century and further positions Illinois as one of the most abortion-accepting states in the country.
“We are protecting patients, providers and families here,” said Sen. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, the bill’s chief Senate sponsor, her voice breaking. “Illinois is a refuge for people, and I will spend every last breath in my body ensuring that those protections exist for anybody that is coming here seeking [to]…live their lives open and freely and honestly.”
Despite their attacks, Republicans could only stand as legislative speed bumps to the abortion package because Democrats, with their supermajorities in the House and Senate, were determined to put the measure on a fast track to Pritzker’s desk. The bill passed the Senate 41-16 and House 70-39.
“I have no words for it, other than pure evil,” Bailey said on his last day in the state Senate.
To dramatize his point, Bailey read from a section of Psalms in the Old Testament that spoke about the creation of life inside the womb.
“This is wrong,” Bailey said. “God help us.”
After a lengthy floor debate, Villanueva turned fiery in shooting back at Republican critics like Bailey and others.
“The same God that’s looking at you is also looking at me. And guess what? It’s the same God who’s given me the inspiration in order to be able to do this,” she shouted. “So we can disagree on a lot of different things, but don’t sit here and tell me you have the moral high ground on your soapboxes over mine.
“You don’t get to decide what happens to my body. You don’t get to decide what happens to the bodies of a lot of different people from other states that are coming to this state seeking refuge,” she yelled, her voice raising even louder.
Pritzker is expected to sign the legislation.
In other developments on a busy legislative day, the Illinois Senate voted to back legislation embraced by the ACLU that would allow convicted felons a way to legally change their names with judicial approval. Supporters said it was aimed at helping victims of sex-trafficking and transgendered individuals seeking to change their names. But opponents said language in the measure would allow child sex offenders, arsonists and other violent criminals to also change their names.
In another vote, the Senate overwhelmingly gave final legislative approval to a sentencing reform measure. The plan would allow those under 21 sentenced to life in prison without parole a chance to win freedom after serving 40 years in prison. The measure would not apply retroactively.
And the House gave final legislative approval to a labor-backed initiative granting workers up to a full week of paid leave per year.
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ.