Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Senate approves 2-sided gun bill

Senate approves 2-sided gun bill
Governor promises to veto part of plan

By Ray Long and Christi Parsons, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporter Erika Slife contributed to this report

May 26, 2005

SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Rod Blagojevich vowed Wednesday to veto legislation requiring the destruction of state records on gun sales just hours after the Senate approved it, raising the stakes on a divisive regional issue that will resonate through next year's political campaigns.

The Democratic governor also pledged to endorse a section of the legislation that would close a legal loophole that lets people buy weapons at private gun shows without background checks.

The National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates welded the two disparate issues together in one compromise bill, hoping to make the governor pick a side after two years of walking a fine line on gun-control.

Blagojevich wasted no time making a choice, saying he would use his amendatory veto power to reject the part of the bill that would destroy the database of records while preserving the part that closes the gun show loophole.

"The NRA might have thought they could force us to eliminate the database by attaching it to legislation that closes the problematic gun show loophole, but they were dead wrong," Blagojevich said in a statement. "We can and should keep gun transaction records and close the gun show loophole."

It was the second straight day in which Blagojevich and Mayor Richard Daley suffered a defeat on gun legislation. On Tuesday, the House narrowly rejected a measure to ban the sale of assault weapons.

The governor's pledge to rewrite the gun records bill was an immediate counterstrike at the NRA's top legislative initiative, and a move that poses new challenges for him if he runs for a second term as expected.

In Illinois, partisan lines don't count on gun issues. Chicago lawmakers and some suburban legislators worried about urban gun violence strongly favor gun control. But a number of suburban lawmakers and virtually all legislators from Downstate counties, where hunters' rights are sacred, consistently vote in favor of gun owners.

Blagojevich, who had made gun control a hallmark of his career in Congress, had to allay the concerns of Downstate voters to win their crucial support in the 2002 primary and general election campaigns. As governor, he has tried to maintain that tricky balancing act, reassuring urban gun-control advocates while trying to hold on to Downstate supporters who have increasingly complained he is too focused on Chicago.

As gun rights activists turn up the heat, action by the governor and lawmakers is sure to show up in political brochures next year.

The NRA and the Illinois State Rifle Association worked with Sen. Peter Roskam (R-Wheaton) to craft legislation with provisions long backed by different sides of the gun issue.

"This is a balance of interests in a state where there is not unanimity or even consensus very often on firearms legislation, and I think that this is a good compromise," Roskam said during the floor debate.

Roskam later said he must decide whether to accept the governor's proposed changes or seek an override when Blagojevich returns the legislation to lawmakers.

The bill calls for records to be destroyed within 90 days of when a gun is bought. Roskam said the records would be preserved in cases where gun purchases were rejected or when there is an investigation of forcible felonies, gunrunning or terrorism.

Sen. Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston) said the bill was more than a compromise.

"This is an outright surrender," he said.

The vote angered police, who lobbied furiously against the bill. They say they use the records to investigate "straw" purchasers who buy guns for criminals.

At the federal level, the Bush administration destroys records of background checks that go through their database within 24 hours of the research. But 21 states have the capability to conduct their own background checks. Authorities in some, including Illinois, say they actively maintain the databases to use in police work.

The NRA and other gun rights groups have tried for years to get rid of their records, which they claim are used mainly to target and intimidate law-abiding gun owners.

NRA lobbyist Todd Vandermyde said he will rally gun rights activists to pressure legislators to stand up to Blagojevich.

"He went to Southern Illinois and campaigned as if he was Charlton Heston," Vandermyde said, invoking the name of the past-NRA leader and actor. "There were some people that bought into that, evidently. Obviously, he's broken every campaign promise or pledge to the Downstaters on this issue."

The legislation passed 34-25 in the Senate, two votes short of the number needed to override a veto. The measure previously passed the House two votes short of the 71 needed for an override in that chamber. Lawmakers also would have the option of voting to accept the veto, which would take only a simple majority in both houses.

If lawmakers take no action on the governor's amendatory veto, the bill will die and the current law will remain in place.

While police and advocates for gun control opposed the two-pronged bill, many of their traditional allies in the Legislature said they were hard-pressed to vote against a closing of the gun show loophole. Such a vote would come back to haunt them in future campaigns, they feared.

Blagojevich said the database is a valuable public safety tool that should be kept in place while the gun show loophole should be closed.

"In the end," Blagojevich said, "our streets and communities will be safer."


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