Gun control legislation in IL spurs heated debate

Apr 30, 2013

The first class of National Newspaper Association Foundation News Fellows arrived in Washington, concurrently with the “We Believe in Newspapers Leadership Summit” to test their news literacy skills on one of the nation’s toughest subjects: gun control legislation.

Five college journalists sponsored by state press associations and journalism schools were selected for the inaugural news literacy program. They were paired with working community newspaper journalists and set up for a couple of key news briefings. Then they were on their own to roam Capitol Hill, the K Street lobbying corridor and other venues in the nation’s capital to try to find out who is shaping public opinion on gun control and how.

By Rachel Rodgers

Editor-in-Chief | The Daily Eastern News, Eastern Illinois University

The push for more restrictive gun control laws has spurred debate throughout the nation and the state of Illinois, with public opinion hinging on factors of tragedy and constitutionality.

Laws tightening the regulation of guns have sprung from the roots of violent, grand-scale events dating back to the National Firearms Act of 1934, which levied heavy taxes on gun manufacturers in an attempt to offset gang violence that grew out of Prohibition.

Shortly after the massacre of 20 first-grade students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, about four months ago, President Barack Obama signed 23 executive orders to try to prevent gun violence and urged Congress to support more restrictive gun laws recommended by a task force chaired by Vice President Joseph Biden.

“Across policy areas, you need a galvanizing event to grip the country and make change,” a White House spokesperson said during a confidential background briefing.

Following the Sandy Hook shootings, national support for stricter gun laws has jumped from 44 percent to 58 percent, said Steve Crabtree, senior editor and research analyst with Gallup Inc.

Congress’ current batch of legislation includes a ban on assault weapons, criminal background checks with every gun sale, a limit on the capacity of ammunition magazines and creating tougher penalties for straw purchasers—people who buy guns legally and resell them to unlicensed customers.

“There are 300 million guns out there in this country, and we need to keep them out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill,” the White House spokesperson said. “If the steps we take save even one life, it would be worth it.”

Even though support for stricter gun control has surged since the shootings, Crabtree said overall backing has dropped during the past two decades. In 1991, he noted, 78 percent of Americans favored stricter gun control.

The Gallup expert added that major events are not the only factors that influence public opinion.

“People’s opinions are greatly shaped by their background, driven by upbringing, partisan affiliation and religious history,” he said.

Although U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-IL, agrees that the shootings in Newtown provided an emotional catalyst in spurring the public’s concern with gun violence, he said a greater issue presents itself with the legislation.

“The basic premise of the Second Amendment is the right to keep and bear arms,” he said. “We must protect individual freedoms of liberty, and any federal law that restricts the individual rights of the people I would argue is unconstitutional.”

Shimkus said many of his constituents worry their Second Amendment right could be diminished from heavier gun control.

“I’ve found a strong Second Amendment majority with the fear that the government will use this tragedy from having law-abiding citizens granted their constitutional rights,” he said.

The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found the majority of Illinois voters support stricter gun control laws in a poll conducted Jan. 27 to Feb. 8.

Of the 600 Illinois voters surveyed, 59.5 percent of those polled said they believe that controlling gun ownership is more important than protecting the right to own guns. Only 31.3 percent said gun rights should take priority over gun control.

Compared with Gallup’s 58 percent national support for more restrictive gun laws, the Simon institute found 72.3 percent of Illinoisans support stricter gun laws.

“It’s striking how much stronger the support for gun control measures is in Illinois compared to the nation as a whole,” said David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Polling Institute, in a press release announcing the poll results. “But it’s not surprising because on measurements of many social issues, the electorate in Illinois is more left of center than the American electorate.”

The bulk of gun control legislation currently moving through the Illinois General Assembly mirrors national bills, with proposals to ban assault weapons, to limit the capacity of ammunition magazines and to require criminal background checks with every gun sale. State legislators will also be debating a bill that mandates reporting lost or stolen guns to police.

Although Illinois’ state legislation is similar to bills pending in other states and while public concern grows with the increased gun violence in Chicago, Illinoisans are also wrestling with a unique issue.

Illinois is the only state without some form of concealed carry law, and in December, a panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state’s ban on carrying concealed weapons in public was unconstitutional.

Illinois has until June 9 to create a law that eliminates the ban. This has called for debate on what restrictions, if any, should be placed on those who are allowed to carry weapons in public.

In a recent poll conducted from March 11 to March 24, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner surveyed 1,000 registered voters in the nation and found that 83 percent believe that it is possible to protect the rights of gun owners and protect people from gun violence at the same time.

“Groups on all sides of the issue are creating a national dialogue,” a White House spokesperson said. “There are deeply held differences between the two parties, but national interest helps to cut through the gridlock.”