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Some Southern Illinois state’s attorneys push back on possible Illinois semi-automatic weapons ban

CARBONDALE — Williamson County State’s Attorney Brandon Zanotti received a standing ovation at a Marion town hall meeting Feb. 4 for his pledge to support gun owners in the event of a statewide semi-automatic weapons ban.

“I went expecting to talk to 20 people and there were hundreds,” Zanotti said of the event, where gun control was a major topic.

Since then, Zanotti has been surprised by the “daily outpourings of support from people in the community,” he said, with people approaching him at restaurants to thank him for his stance.

He’s also gotten the support of several local colleagues.

“I’m 100 percent on board with what Brandon said,” said David Searby, the state’s attorney for Perry County. And several other local state’s attorneys have expressed similar stances in private conversation.

“Every state’s attorney I’ve talked to has been in agreement with my position,” Zanotti said.

Zanotti was motivated to speak out by Senate Bill 107, a bill that would ban a wide range of guns, described as “assault weapons,” including many well-known semiautomatic rifles and pistols like the AK-47, AK-74, AR-15, AR-10, MAC-10 and Uzi. The bill also restricts many gun modifications, especially those that increase the number of rounds a gun can fire. It also targets pistol and rifle magazines capable of holding more than ten rounds.

Currently, the bill sits in the Judiciary Committee of the Illinois Senate, though Zanotti believes its passage is likely, with veto-proof Democrat majorities in both the Illinois House and Senate.

Zanotti, himself a Democrat, wasn’t motivated to speak out by politics, he said. He was motivated by a law he sees as overreaching, constitutionally dubious, and unfair to the people of Southern Illinois.

“I don’t like to pit Chicago against downstate,” Zanotti said, “but where is the violence from these weapons coming from? Gang activity in Chicago. We’re in a different world down here. We don’t see that kind of violence. People who use these weapons here are, by and large, good honest citizens.”

Those are the people Zanotti is pledging to leave alone.

If SB 107 passes, gun owners can legally keep their banned weapons only if they register the make, model, caliber, and serial number of the weapon with the Illinois State Police, with proof of a valid FOID card, and proof of a locking device, or a lockbox, for the gun.

The registration will run $25 per person, and neglecting it could result in a Class 3 felony, which carries a prison sentence of up to five years and a $25,000 fine.

With or without SB 107, Zanotti said he’ll continue to “aggressively” prosecute felons with illegal guns. But he doesn’t like the prospect of legal gun owners becoming felons because they own newly banned weapons.

“This is something that we’re not going to prosecute,” Zanotti said. “If it’s someone that’s a decent person, who is not committing crimes with these weapons, but using them the ways they’re trained to use them: for sport, collecting or home safety purposes.”

State’s attorneys often face choices about what to prosecute and how harshly. The goal, Searby said, is to seek justice in all cases. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the highest possible conviction rate.

For Zanotti, a prime example is cannabis law. In Illinois, possession of 10 grams or less is a civil penalty, Zanotti explained, the same category as a speeding ticket. Possession of 10 grams or less plus a marijuana pipe is still a civil penalty. But possession of a pipe without the substance is judged more harshly: It’s a misdemeanor.

“Going back to common sense that makes no sense to me,” Zanotti said. “So we don’t prosecute those (as misdemeanors).”

A common sense approach to gun control, Searby said, starts with a few basic points: The problem isn’t legal gun owners, it isn’t legal assault rifles, and it isn’t in Southern Illinois.

“How often do we hear that a crime is committed with a semi-automatic rifle in Southern Illinois?” Searby said. “I have lots of issues with this, because it impacts your friends, your family and your neighbors. It’s terrible piece of legislation.”

Several key figures support Searby’s views.

Handguns are used vastly more in murder and violent crime than rifles or any other type of weapon, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting data.

Even in mass murders, defined as attacks that kill at least three or at least four victims (depending on the research methodology), pistols account for about two-thirds of all incidents, while the other third are mostly so-called assault weapons, said George Mocsary, a gun law specialist at the Southern Illinois University School of Law.

And, while no comprehensive national system exists to track the massive movement of firearms from legal to illegal hands, localized studies throughout the country have shown that illegally held guns are a huge factor in crime.

In 2008, Anthony Fabio, an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh, tracked the histories of all 893 guns that Pittsburgh police recovered that year. In 79 percent of the 2008 cases, he found, the guns were used illegally by people other than their lawful owners, while just 18 percent of the crimes were committed by the guns’ lawful owners.

Over 30 percent of the guns were reported stolen by their rightful owners, Fabio found, though a disturbing number were not so reported until after they’d been used in a crime.

“It is highly likely that a significant amount of theft or trafficking is the source of perpetrators’ firearms,” he concluded, though the legal-to-illegal pipeline is still poorly understood.

It’s a major problem in Illinois. In 2016, some 4,745 guns were reported stolen in Illinois, the most in more than a decade, according to analysis from firearm news organization The Trace. That same year, Chicago reported its highest murder count in 20 years, with 762 people killed.

There, guns have consistently been traced to a few sources: The 2017 Chicago Gun Trace report found about 60 percent of firearms recovered by police were originally purchased at a dealer outside Illinois; about 20 percent of them from Indiana, where gun laws are less strict.

“It is self-evident that the availability of illegally circulated firearms in Chicago, which exceeds that of many other major U.S. cities, is directly connected to its deadly street violence,” the report said.

The Chicago report ended with several suggestions to legislators: establish stricter penalties for private sellers who fail to verify a buyer's FOID card before selling a gun, more harshly enforce Illinois' "lost and stolen reporting" law, which requires reporting a firearm's loss or theft within 72 hours of discovering the incident, and pass legislation requiring gun dealers to be licensed by the Illinois State Police, install video surveillance, and train employees to recognize buyers who intend to illegally resell guns.

That final suggestion was heeded by Governor Pritzker, who signed a licensing law in mid-January.

It was strongly criticized by the Illinois Rifle Association, and many downstate politicians.

"Here we go southern Illinois!" wrote 115th District Rep. Terri Bryant on Facebook. "That sound you hear is your second amendment rights being ripped away one by one.”

Searby too, is skeptical of gun laws handed down from northern Illinois.

“Chicago has had draconian gun laws for years. It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. If a person wants a gun, they can get one,” Searby said. “Making felons out of law-abiding citizens is not going to solve that.”

Areas of Southern Illinois do struggle with violence. FBI data from 2016 listed Mount Vernon, Murphysboro, Cahokia, Belleville, Alton, Metropolis, Murphysboro, Carbondale and Olney among the 25 Illinois cities with the highest rates of violent crime.

Data on the origins of crime guns is not as available in Carbondale as in Chicago, said Carbondale Police Community Resource Officer Randy Mathis.

But the story of gun violence in rural Southern Illinois appears to coincide with the national narrative: Many problems start with criminals illegally accessing guns.

“We have very little gun violence in Johnson County, but almost all of our gun violence is felons illegally in possession of a weapon, and drug cases,” said Johnson County State’s Attorney Tambra Cain.

In her rural county, Cain said gun ownership is an important crime deterrent.

“Most of our law-abiding citizens have firearms,” Cain said. "A criminal entering a home in Chicago knows the likelihood the homeowner has a gun is limited. In Johnson County, it’s much more likely.”

Like Zanotti, Cain said her conversations with local state’s attorneys found widespread opposition to the SB 107 weapons ban.

“I believe any such law will be unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable,” Cain said. “It’s a terrible bill that infringes the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms.”

Mocsary believes the bill will survive challenge in the courts, if passed, though he doesn’t think it should.

“The courts have been upholding these kinds of laws, generally speaking,” Mocsary said of rifle bans. However, Mocsary said data doesn’t support the widely held idea that so-called assault rifles are deadlier in mass shootings than other weapons.

“There’s no meaningful evidence that they make a reasonable difference,” Mocsary said. “When infringing upon an enumerated constitutional right, the burden is on the government to prove it makes an impact on public safety.”

When it comes to mass shootings, the first step is meaningful mental health reform, Mocsary said, while cities and towns that struggle with handgun violence need stricter criminal penalties for illegal users.

Zanotti, Searby and Mocsary also share serious doubts about the enforceability of an Illinois weapons ban.

The proposed $25 fee would add “bureaucracy and burden” for legal gun buyers, Zanotti said.

And many gun owners aren’t interested in helping the government track their whereabouts, much less turning in their weapons.

“Gun owners are very averse to registration,” Mocsary said. “Compliance rates with confiscation and registration schemes have been extraordinarily low,” particularly in the United States.

The Illinois State Police, who are charged with enforcing SB 107 if it passes, already struggle with inadequate resources, Zanotti added.

“They do a great job, but we have backlogs of evidence with them,” Zanotti said. “So I’m thinking if they’re backed up getting evidence processed, how are they going to be getting people to comply with this law?”

Repeated questions to Governor Pritzker’s office about whether he supports SB 107 went unanswered. Repeated requests for comment on the bill and its potential implementation were ignored by bill sponsor Sen. Julie Morrison, via phone, email and social media contact.

“I intend to enforce the laws of the people of the state of Illinois,” said Jackson County State’s Attorney Mike Carr, in response to a request for comment on the legislation. “That’s my oath of office.”

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