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Battle lines drawn in first House gun debate

(MCT) — The Illinois House opened up the spring session's first major debate between gun rights and gun control forces Tuesday, the two sides wrangling over how to balance a federal court decision that calls for making guns easier to carry in public along with addressing the rising violence on Chicago's streets.

Searing testimony ranged from a haunting plea for stronger background checks delivered by a mother whose child was killed five years ago in the mass shooting at Northern Illinois University to the staunch demand to pass concealed weapons legislation.

Gun control advocates have urged strong restrictions throughout the country, including in Illinois, given the tragic deaths of children in Newtown, Conn., and the shooting of high school band majorette Hadiya Pendleton a mile from President Barack Obama's Chicago home. Last week, Obama stood on the South Side with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn in pressing for a crackdown on gun violence.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, called for Tuesday's hearing and another Friday in Chicago to help shape the parameters of a debate that is sharply divided by lawmakers who want Illinoisans to be able to carry concealed weapons, others who don't and some seeking compromise.

Pressure for action on gun laws is coming to a head because a federal appeals court in December gave legislators six months to draft a concealed weapons law. The deadline is in early June. Attorney General Lisa Madigan has asked for a rehearing from the full U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, raising the possibility that the date could be delayed or overturned.

Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps of Harrisburg in far southern Illinois urged lawmakers to enact legislation that would put some restrictions on carrying concealed weapons, such as requiring firearms training and banning the guns from being carried in places like bars, stadiums, schools and universities.

Phelps, a proponent of concealed carry, warned failure to act before the deadline, assuming it's not put on hold, would mean anyone with a firearms permit in Illinois could "carry pretty much anything you want, wherever you want."

That possibility lingers as a potentially major change from current law: Illinois is the sole state that doesn't allow at least some form of concealed weapons.

Republican Rep. Dennis Reboletti of Elmhurst said lawmakers must act now or "it's going to be a very unsafe place to be in the state of Illinois."

The most poignant moment in the House Judiciary Committee hearing came when Mary Kay Mace told lawmakers her daughter, Ryanne, was the "youngest of five students murdered" by a gunman at NIU five years ago on Valentine's Day.

"In the aftermath of the NIU shooting, I found out that the gunman had an extensive and well-documented history of mental illness," she said. "Despite that … he was able to legally purchase the firearms he used in his massacre. I've devoted a lot of time to educating myself in a quest to find out how that could possibly happen."

She called for legislators to "consider the poor state" of the background check database for gun buyers when seeking to make state laws stronger.

Yet another major flash point in the hearing was discussion about the bedrock question: How sweeping was the federal appeals court's ruling? A policy adviser for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez argued the ruling and its 180-day deadline for Illinois to act could have little impact on prosecutions of people carrying weapons in the open.

"I suggest to you that that is somewhat illusory," said Paul Castiglione of Alvarez's office. He maintained the Illinois Supreme Court will have a say in the matter.

But Rep. Mike Zalewski, a former prosecutor, immediately questioned Castiglione's suggestion that lawmakers are not under a "ticking clock" to act, saying the Alvarez aide "kind of dropped a pretty big rhetorical bomb on some of us."

"We should tread carefully, tread lightly on that specific conclusion because we're charged with passing a constitutional statute down here in the next 60 to 90 days or so," said Zalewski, D-Chicago.

Ronald Rotunda, an expert on the Illinois Constitution, sided with Zalewski.

"Whenever the 7th Circuit and the Illinois Supreme Court have a conflict, the federal court will win," said Rotunda, a constitutional law professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

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