There’s been sort of an unwritten rule the past several years in Springfield to stay away from doing things like ban assault weapons.
The votes to pass one have seemingly been there in both chambers, but the will of past Democratic leadership seemed to be to not overtly poke any big, cash-rich bears, like the National Rifle Association, or to alienate or electorally imperil conservative members of their Democratic caucuses.
Perhaps more importantly, Democratic leaders also haven’t wanted to unintentionally set off a pro-gun judicial tripwire that could not only kill the state law they passed but expand national gun-owners’ rights even further and perhaps imperil other laws here and elsewhere around the nation.
Under duress from the federal judiciary several years ago, Illinois legislators approved a law allowing for concealed carrying of firearms. Tucked into that law was a short, ten-day window allowing local governments to pass their own ordinances to ban assault weapons. Highland Park passed such an ordinance within the time limit, but other mayors figured that the state would eventually get around to banning the weapons, so they waited. Five years later, in 2018, Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering and other suburban leaders went back to Springfield and asked, in lieu of statewide legislative action, that the local option to pass a ban be reinstated. Their proposal went nowhere.
Fast-forward to this past summer, when Rotering’s Highland Park was the scene of a horrific massacre at its Independence Day parade. A man fired an assault weapon 83 times within seconds and killed seven people, wounding 48 more.
Freshman Representative Maura Hirschauer (D-Batavia) introduced an assault-weapon ban this past January, but she had only picked up one co-sponsor before the July 4 holiday. After the Highland Park shooting, Hirschauer signed up 55 more co-sponsors in quick order.
Representative Hirschauer was not able to round up the 71 House votes it would’ve taken to pass a bill with an immediate effective date in the summer and fall. But I’m told it’s quite safe to say that she had lined up more than the bare majority of sixty.
House Speaker Chris Welch convened several working groups over the summer, including the Firearm Safety and Reform Working Group, headed by state Representative Bob Morgan, who was at the Highland Park parade. Representative Morgan (D-Deerfield) and the working group rolled out House Bill 5855 last week, the Protect Illinois Communities Act. Among other things, the bill prohibits the sale of assault weapons and requires existing owners to register their weapons with the Illinois State Police.
The bill’s first hearing is Monday, December 12. It’s widely assumed that Morgan has more than enough votes to pass his legislation after January 1, when approval will only require a simple majority of sixty votes. Representative Hirschauer is also helping line up votes.
But gun-law reform groups aren’t taking any chances. A new not-for-profit group called “Protect Illinois Communities” has been formed to push for passage of the bill in both chambers.
The group will use “paid and grassroots engagement,” including TV ads, phones, and direct mail, for a “well-funded” campaign that is apparently designed not only to counter groups like the National Rifle Association, but also to prod legislative Democrats to move past their reluctance and take some action. Expect a significant expenditure.
In the past, we’ve seen things like nearly-identical bills advanced by each chamber, with nothing ever actually getting through both chambers and to the governor’s desk, or (as under former Governor Bruce Rauner) only advanced to the governor’s desk in the face of a guaranteed veto that couldn’t be overridden.
So, keep an eye on the Senate, where the presiding officer has been a vociferous proponent of gun-law reform his entire career, but whose caucus contains a sizable number of moderates who have wanted to shy away from such legislation.
Meanwhile, the “Illinois Freedom Caucus” issued a press release attacking Morgan’s Protect Illinois Communities Act proposal.
The group, composed of far-right Illinois House members, called on legislators “to fulfill their oath of office by standing up for our Constitution even the parts of that document they don’t like.”
So I asked the group’s spokesperson if members, who are all avowed Donald Trump supporters, had any thoughts about former President Trump’s recent claim that the 2020 election, which he still falsely claims was stolen, "allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”
It may not surprise you to learn that I never heard back.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.