Illinois' New Governor Faces Pressure on Gun Control

 

For much of the 1998 gubernatorial campaign, Illinois television sets were ablaze with the image of a half-dozen actors running through the streets with guns in their hands.The campaign commercial from Republican George Ryan meant to remind voters that guns too often wind up in the hands of criminals, and imply that his Democratic gubernatorial opponent -- U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard, a one-time opponent of the Brady Law and assault weapons ban -- would do nothing to address the problem.

The ability to define Poshard somehow as a friend of gun-wielding criminals swung the election to Ryan. But it now puts pressure on the newly-installed Illinois governor to deliver on an important campaign pledge and move the gundebate beyond gridlock as the Illinois General Assembly begins its spring session.

Following the lead of California, Ryan has proposed new guidelines that would impose a life prison sentence against anyone who fires a gun and wounds someone while committing a crime.

Judges could tack an extra 20 years on the sentences of anyone who fires a gun without wounding someone during a crime. And criminals over 14 who have a gun while committing a crime would automatically get 15 extra years in prison added to their sentences.

"My proposal basically is to penalize the person who misuses the gun. As I've said many times, 98 percent of people who own guns are law-abiding citizens, and they don't misuse them. But there are 2 percent who do, and they should pay a very heavy price when they misuse a gun," Ryan said.

The idea, which Ryan would like to move this spring, would carry a steep price-tag. State correction officials estimate that over 10 years, 5,000 more inmates would crowd into Illinois' penal system at a cost of $500 million. Atleast two new prisons would have to be built during that period to accommodate the lengthier sentences.

But gun-control advocates don't believe Ryan's plan is enough and instead are turning to a package being brought before lawmakers by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Daley, like Ryan before him, is using guns as a key issue in his primary election mayoral campaign against U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush.

Daley, a Democrat, wants lawmakers to impose a one-gun-a-month purchasing limit on buyers and ban dealers in the suburbs from selling guns to residents of Chicago or other cities where local law bars guns from being sold.

As part of his plan, the mayor wants gun dealers to be licensed by the state and report all gun purchases to the Illinois State Police within 24 hours, so police can better track where weapons are winding up. Gun shops also could face civil liability if the weapons they sell are used illegally.

Chicago has joined New Orleans, Miami, Bridgeport, Conn. and other cities in trying to hold gunmakers legally liable for the millions of dollars in tax money spent to cope with firearm violence.

"The state licenses beekeepers, manicurists, taxidermists and many other businesses that are nowhere near as great a threat to public safety as gun stores," Daley said. "These merchants are putting thousands of deadly weapons on the street, sometimes illegally, and it's time to put some restrictions on them."

Ryan has dodged questions about whether there are any components of Daley's plan that he could support. Instead, Ryan has attempted to shift focus back to his own tough sentencing plan, which he has dubbed "15, 20 and Life."

If Daley musters the votes to get his idea out of the Democratic-controlled Illinois House, it will encounter stiff resistance in the Republican-led state Senate, where gun-rights groups like the Illinois State Rifle Association carry enormous clout.

Senate President James "Pate" Philip (R-Wood Dale), an ally of those groups, has openly questioned provisions in Daley's plan that limit gun purchases and bar sales to residents from towns like Chicago with existing gun-control laws.

"How about Indiana? I mean, if they can't buy them in the suburbs, they'll go to Indiana or Wisconsin. They'll get them," Philip said of Chicagoans seeking to buy as many guns as they like.

Longtime legislative observers, like Governors State University political scientist Paul Green, doubt Ryan will attempt to wade into the thorny gun-control dispute beyond his pledge to throw the book at criminals who use guns.Politically, there is no advantage in doing so, Green said.

"George Ryan has got a lot more important things to worry about. He's got education, gambling, and the budget. Guns, I don't think except in a political campaign when you're trying to appeal to an urban electorate or the suburbanwomen's electorate, is not that critical an issue," Green said.

Nonetheless, Daley plans to up-the-pressure on Ryan and the General Assembly to pass tougher gun laws by coming to the Illinois statehouse before his Feb. 23 primary election to lobby for his package.

Rep. Thomas Dart (D-Chicago), Daley's point man on the gun issue, said Ryan's plan alone is inadequate, and that the governor is obligated to do something substantive about guns because he made that a defining focus of his campaign.

"I think there will be an incredible amount of pressure on him to compromise to get something through," Dart said. "He was the beneficiary in the election because of his stance on this. I think it would be very difficult on him notto get involved in trying to broker something of substance."

 
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