STORY AT THE PATCH
Restrictions, programs would have to be written to conform with SCOTUS rulings, withstand legal challenges.
By Deborah Kadin
More than a year after the the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its long-standing ban on handguns, Oak Park officials are looking for new ways to limit potential firearm owners.
This time, they'll approach gun ownership as a public health issue.
Why? Because organizations as varied as the American Public Health Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have for years said that the gun-associated violence is a public health epidemic in the United States.
And in Oak Park, the Department of Public Health has a mandate to protect the community's health from preventable death and injury, so the board of health seemed to be the most logical place to start a review, Village Manager Tom Barwin said.
“When you look at the issue from a public policy perspective, there are tremendous costs associated with guns, (such as) treatment and incarceration,” said Barwin, a former police officer in Detroit and other communities in Michigan. “We want to see what’s out there regarding safety regulations and awareness with respect to guns.”
The Village’s board of health – a panel of volunteers who advise the public health department - will examine training and licensing requirements in other Illinois communities to see if those measures could stand up to any legal challenges from gun rights advocates.
The board of trustees directed public health and its advisory panel to begin that task in September, Patch has learned. Recommendations from the health department of public health may come before the village board early next year, village officials said. A memo outlining the board's direction is attached in a PDF.
Oak Park is on sound legal ground to adopt its own ordinances on firearms because Illinois law grants authority to local jurisdictions to regulate firearms and ammunition, and the Illinois constitution allows for the keeping and bearing of arms, similar to wording in part of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Both state and federal law permit a broad range of firearm-related regulation for public health and safety purposes, according to the Legal Community Against Violence, a San Francisco-based education and advocacy organization.
The Ban Begins
In 1983, a wheelchair-bound former Chicago cop named Hutchie Moore rolled into a Chicago courtroom during a divorce case, pulled a gun from underneath a blanket on his lap, opened fire and killed Oak Park attorney James Piszczor and Judge Henry Gentile.
That senseless act of violence, which some believed might have been prevented if guns weren’t so readily available, prompted village officials to begin looking at what it could do to keep its residents safe in their own community.
An anti-gun groundswell took hold in Oak Park, along with an emotional community debate — some of it fueled by the presence of pro-gun supporters from around the country. In 1984, trustees took the controversial step of banning guns; the vote was a close 4-3.
With the controversial vote, Oak Park joined the communities of Morton Grove, Evanston and Chicago in enacting a ban.
About the same time, a new village board was seated and trustees put the question of a handgun ban before the voters in the form of an advisory referendum.
In November 1985, the community upheld the handgun ban, essentially strengthening the majority public opinion against gun ownership, making Oak Park effectively the first town to beat the NRA, according to the Chicago Tribune. The story is attached as a PDF.
Soon after, other Illinois communities began exploring handgun bans after Laurie Dann, an emotionally disturbed woman, purchased three weapons from a Glenview gun shop, killed a child in a Winnetka classroom and wounded six others before she took her own life in the spring of 1988.
The communities of Wilmette and Winnetka adopted bans in 1989; Highland Park adopted restrictions the same year, although Morton Grove, Winnetka and Wilmette would repeal their bans after the question of handgun bans came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, when justices issued District of Columbia v. Heller.
In that decision, the Court for the first time set out the Second Amendment guarantee that a law-abiding, responsible citizen has the right to possess a handgun in the home for self-defense.
In the wake of the ruling, Evanston also turned back its rules but kept in place a gun buy-back program. Regulations remain in Highland Park.
And Oak Park's ban endured a controversial challenge when, in 1988, gas station owner Donald Bennett was acquitted by a Cook County jury of possessing and firing a handgun, which was used against two robbers of his station. The village decided not to appeal.
Still, Oak Park and Chicago’s bans held steady, and both communities worked together to defend a court case that sought to overturn their bans. They successfully were upheld at the federal and appellate levels.
SCOTUS Steps In
Then in June 2010, the Supreme Court issued McDonald v. Chicago, overturning Chicago and Oak Park’s restrictions on handgun ownership.
Rulings in Heller and McDonald stressed that some firearm regulation is constitutionally permissible, and the Second Amendment right to possess firearms is not unlimited.
Yet some of the village’s ordinances regulating weapons still remain, including restrictions on the sale, loaning, rental or give-away of firearms, assault weapons or assault ammunition.
Like the LCAV, the Brady Center Legal Action Project says other measures — like requirements for child safety locks and safe storage, licensing, training, background checks and waiting period to purchase guns — are consistent with the Heller and McDonald decisions.
“This is about curbing a public health epidemic. This is not about addressing concerns after the fact but putting in place preventative actions that take that approach,” said Julia Leftwich, the LCAV’s legal director.
Days after the Supreme Court handed down its McDonald ruling, Chicago adopted new regulations allowing residents to have handguns in their homes, measures that included registration of firearms, city and state licensing and training at firearms practice facilities — even though such facilities for civilians were banned in the city. And gun shops were prohibited.
And in Illinois, other firearm legislation is being explored. Lawmakers are assessing whether to revisit adoption of a conceal-carry law; consideration was postponed last spring.
In a test vote last spring on H.R. 148, Reps. Camille Lilly (D-78th) and Karen Yarbrough (D-7th) voted against it; Rep. Angelo Saviano (R-77th) voted for it; and Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8th) voted present, according to Mark Walsh, field director of the Illinois Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Whatever happens on a state level, village officials in Oak Park insist they'll ensure its laws meet constitutional muster — and ensure that the community remains safe.
“It is part of the village board’s responsibility to look at public safety and for the board to consider reasonable legislation that is compliant with the Supreme Court and ensure the safety and maintain the health and welfare of individuals,” said Oak Park Village President David Pope.
Calls for comment from City of Chicago officials went unanswered; efforts to contact officials at the National Rifle Association and Illinois State Rifle Association for comment were unsuccessful.
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