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House lawmakers clash over assault weapons ban

(MCT) — House lawmakers clashed Thursday on the question of whether an assault weapons ban should be approved in Illinois, a split that put on full display how hard it will be to balance the rights of individual gun owners with the desire of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn to put the prohibition in place.

A volatile hearing before the House Judiciary Committee quickly established the dividing lines on the contentious issue and offered a preview of what's to come. Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, is expected to open up the full chamber as early as next week to a broader debate on gun control.

The issue has taken on renewed prominence in Illinois and across the country in the wake of the mass shootings at a grade school in Newtown, Conn., and the continued gun homicides on the streets of Chicago. The U.S. Senate held its own debate Thursday over restrictions on assault weapons, but testimony in Springfield arose directly from Chicago's most violent neighborhoods.

"I'm more convinced than ever there is no place for weapons of war in our communities," said Rep. Edward Acevedo, a Chicago Democrat and police officer who has long sought an assault weapons ban.

Acevedo called for Illinois to "take the lead" in putting in place a prohibition on the sale and manufacture of the weapons in Illinois rather than waiting for dysfunctional Washington to enact a federal ban. The General Assembly has never sent a governor an assault weapons ban, though Quinn has vowed to sign one. An Illinois State Police representative testified that Quinn specifically wants to ban assault weapon sales. Acevedo and Chicago police made it clear that the city cannot wait.

"These guns are designed for war," Acevedo said.

Homicides jumped 16 percent in Chicago in 2012, and the violence continued in January. Last year, police confiscated nearly 7,500 guns in Chicago, testified Alfonza Wysinger, the first deputy superintendent. Of those, he said, 277 were assault weapons. He drove home his concerns with more numbers: 45 assault weapons were among the 1,100 guns confiscated this year; since the federal ban was lifted in 2004, the city has seized 2,678 assault weapons.

"These numbers are unacceptable," Wysinger said. "The Chicago Police Department has prioritized taking dangerous weapons off the streets and out of the hands of violent criminals. However, these efforts alone won't eliminate violence in our community or violence against our young people."

Wysinger told lawmakers that an assault weapons ban "cannot come soon enough," but he acknowledged that only a fraction of Chicago's homicides are tied to the military-style, high-powered guns. For example, the 2011 Chicago Murder Analysis prepared by the Police Department reported that 361 of the city's 433 homicide victims that year were shot, and "nearly all of those shootings involved handguns."

Gun rights lawmakers countered that no prohibition is needed.

"We're trying to pass a bill to make us feel good, and it isn't going to do a thing," said Republican Rep. Jim Sacia, a former FBI agent from Pecatonica.

"I deer hunt with an assault weapon," Sacia added.

The comment illustrated the geographic divide in Illinois on the gun control issue: Downstate lawmakers oppose restrictions as an infringement on sportsmen's rights, Chicago lawmakers are looking for help against the scourge of street violence, and suburban lawmakers often are in between.

Greg Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs' Association, said his group opposes the ban but acknowledged that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart disagrees with that opposition. Sullivan said more focus should be placed on mental health services and enforcing gun laws already on the books.

National Rifle Association lobbyist Todd Vandermyde also condemned a proposed ban, suggesting that the term "assault weapon" is part of a public relations push aimed at leaving gun owners with little more than "flintlocks."

"For decades it has been a PR campaign to figure a way to cobble together phrases. It was pocket rockets, it was Saturday night specials, it was assault weapons, it's sniper rifles, to sit down and say, 'How can we ban more guns?'" Vandermyde said.

Democratic Rep. Andre Thapedi of Chicago added a different twist to the debate. He questioned why Chicago police don't carry assault weapons in Englewood, a violence-plagued South Side neighborhood he represents.

"Is there a reason why we can't at least explore that opportunity?" asked Thapedi, who added: "I'd like to make sure that our officers are adequately armed to deal with the wars that we're basically having in the streets of Englewood."

"I don't have a problem with that, Representative," Wysinger replied.

But Wysinger said officers must meet rigorous standards before they are allowed to carry assault weapons. They are trained to bring the weapons out during an "emergency situation, shooting situation or a situation where they may be in imminent danger," he said.

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