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Gun Policy

Chicago Shootings Are Surging Again. But a Bill to Inspect Illinois Gun Stores Sits on the Shelf.

With the ATF stretched thin, licensed firearms dealers can go years without close scrutiny.

As a summer surge in shootings puts Chicago on track for another staggering homicide total in 2017, an innovative approach to regulating gun dealers in Illinois will wait until next year for a chance to become law. The bill is the latest casualty of the state’s tight network of pro-gun lobbyists, activists, bloggers, and firearms businesses, its sponsor said.

State Senator Don Harmon, a Democrat from the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, shepherded the Gun Dealer Licensing Act out of the upper chamber this spring on a vote of 30-21. Up next was the state House, where his fellow Democrats hold a comfortable 67-51 majority.

In a phone interview, Harmon said that the state’s pro-gun forces, backed by the National Rifle Association, had swayed enough House members to prompt the legislation’s sponsor in that chamber to hold back the proposal. The bill was left sitting on the shelf when the Legislature adjourned its regular business for the year.

Harmon said his House allies were still working to secure a winning margin for the bill when the Legislature returns in January.  Governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican, has sparred constantly with the General Assembly’s Democratic majorities and has not indicated whether he would sign the proposal, should it reach his desk.

Gun-store licensing has been a longstanding goal for gun reformers in Illinois. Harmon seemed to have cleared a path for that oversight when he secured a neutral position on his bill from the Illinois Firearms Manufacturers Association. But once the bill reached the House, Second-Amendment activists persuaded gun manufacturers to actively oppose the legislation.

There are 2,400 federally licensed gun dealers in Illinois, according to records maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,  Firearms and Explosives. Many go years without direct scrutiny from the ATF, which in 2016 inspected just 6.3 percent of licensed sellers.

The Gun Dealer Licensing Act would require that the state’s firearms retailers pass inspections from the Illinois State Police. It would also compel dealers to conduct background checks of their employees (which federal law mandates only for owners) and install video monitoring that could yield records of suspect transactions.

The legislation exempts big-box stores as well as dealers who sell fewer than 10 guns a year. Its intended focus is dealers like Chuck’s Guns, in south suburban Riverdale, a longtime target of anti-violence activists and the subject of a 2014 University of Chicago study that found it was the source for 1,500 firearms seized by Chicago Police in the previous five years.

“It’s clear to me this is not a coincidence,” Harmon said. “But our state and local police forces have no tools to review these gun dealers.”

To make the case for greater scrutiny of Illinois’ firearms sellers, Harmon cites research from Professor Daniel Webster, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Gun Policy and Research, who has conducted comprehensive reviews of federal and state firearm regulations. Webster’s analysis has shown that close oversight of gun stores is among the policies that can have a dramatic impact on reducing gun violence.

There are 2,400 federally licensed gun dealers in Illinois. Many go years without direct scrutiny from the ATF.

The Gun Dealer Licensing Act’s passage by the Senate on April 27 was cheered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and by gun-violence prevention supporters at the Joyce Foundation, Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence and the Brady Campaign, among others.

“Stopping straw buyers from giving guns to criminals is essential to improving public safety,” Emanuel said at the time, “not just here in Chicago, but in every corner of the state and across the Midwest.”

Within hours, the state’s formidable pro-gun advocates were mobilizing to stop it.

The hard-line firearms website The Truth About Guns accused Springfield Armory and Rock River Arms, two of the primary donors to the Illinois Firearms Manufacturers Association, of compromising their support for gun rights in exchange for exemptions for gun makers, which under the bill aren’t subject to the same vetting as sellers. The site noted that an earlier version of the bill, then opposed by the manufacturers, had included them in the monitoring requirements.

The Illinois State Rifle Association responded with an alert to its members, claiming  without evidence that the time and effort spent on the new regulation would add $150 to $300 to the cost of every weapon sold by Illinois gun shops. Harmon was labeled “an enemy of the 2nd Amendment; an enemy of the Constitution; and an enemy of the people.”

The next morning, May 1, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action published an article echoing both the Truth About Guns missive and the statement from the Illinois State Rifle Association, stepping up the pressure on Springfield Armory and Rock River for their alleged betrayals. The NRA post lambasted as “pusillanimous” the statement by Springfield’s chief executive officer, Dennis Reese, explaining the manufacturing association’s neutrality, which proclaimed that the gun maker’s support for both the Second Amendment and gun owners, but said, “The legislative process is a fluid process….” The NRA noted that the bill’s exemptions for manufacturers would have saved each company substantial expenses that their competitors would have been obligated to pay.

Springfield Armory, a family-owned company that revived the name of the historic arms manufacturer chartered by George Washington in Springfield, Massachusetts, during the American Revolution, proved sensitive to the blowback. By 5 p.m. that day, Reese was vowing to work against the bill.

“At the time of my initial statement to the media,” Reese wrote, “I was ill-informed of the ramifications of this bill and its detrimental effects to the Second Amendment, which I have personally fought to protect my entire life.”

The following day, both Springfield and Rock River, which makes custom firearms and parts, had both formally withdrawn their support for the Gun Dealer Licensing Act and officially severed their relationship with the Illinois Firearms Manufacturers Association.

At that point, the legislation was still alive, with a House committee hearing scheduled for mid-May. But both Reese and Chuck Larson, Rock River’s chief executive officer, testified against the bill. By the end of the month, the pro-gun network was crowing that the Gun Dealer Licensing Act had been shelved.

John Bosch, a writer for The Truth About Guns, credited his side’s success with not only the public pressure placed on Illinois gun manufacturers to throw their weight against the measure, but also the lobbying work done behind the scenes to convince “fence-sitting legislators to sit this one out.”

Although Harmon asserted that there are many gun owners in the state who support licensing, he acknowledged that his bill had to contend with two powerful, inter-connected pro-gun constituencies that are experienced at navigating state government.

“At the core are members who feel passionately about the Second Amendment. They are engaged and genuine,” Harmon said. “There are also gun manufacturers and the NRA who exploit that passion.”

“We’re within spitting distance,” he added. “But we’re not there yet.”

Colleen Daley, the executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Handgun Violence, said the gun-licensing bill remained a top priority for the organization, which has both staff and volunteers sending letters, making phone calls and otherwise cajoling legislators to get onboard when the measure’s sponsors are ready to move forward.

“Licensing gun dealers has nothing to do with the Second Amendment,” Daley said. “It’s a business license. We’ve come a long way on this issue and we’re not going to give up.”

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson announced on August 23 that the city was poised to seize its 6,000th firearm of 2017. The city confiscated 8,300 guns last year, up from over 6,500 in 2015.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the margin of votes that the Gun Dealer Licensing Act would need for passage should it be considered outside of the regular legislative calendar. Although state rules do require a three-fifths majority for certain bills outside of normal session, that stipulation does not apply to the firearms dealer licensing legislation.