By now, you've probably read several stories about the huge number of pending gun bills in the Illinois General Assembly.
The amount of gun control bills is not particularly new. Most of the bills on the calendar have been introduced year after year by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's allies. What's striking is the number of pro-gun rights bills that are moving through the system.
So far, most of the media attention has focused on the more high-profile gun bills, like legislation giving people the right to carry concealed firearms.
But there's something else going on here.
Emboldened by a major victory last year on a very narrow bill that expanded gun owner rights, the NRA has introduced a ton of little bills that nibble away at the edges of current gun control laws, rather than make sweeping changes. All told, the NRA has almost 40 bills in the hopper right now, about twice as many as the anti-gun groups.
Last year, the NRA was successful in steamrolling a bill through both chambers that allowed people who defended their homes with firearms which are outlawed by local ordinances to use that act of self defense to fend off any municipal charges of criminal possession or use. The bill surfaced after a Wilmette man shot an intruder with a gun that was banned by Wilmette's very strict anti-gun ordinances.
The Wilmette incident quickly became a cause celebre, and the bill sailed through both chambers. Governor Blagojevich vetoed the bill, but both the House and Senate overrode him last November with huge majorities.
Some of the NRA's bills this year are logical extensions of the Wilmette bill. If it's OK to shoot an intruder with an illegal weapon, the logic goes, then why allow the local ordinances in the first place? Bills in both the House and the Senate would preempt local control on this subject, although one preemption bill failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee this month.
Other NRA bills also seem reasonable at first glance, and even upon closer examination. Over twenty years ago, the NRA signed onto an historic legislative compromise that outlined how gun owners could transport their weapons. But some municipalities, including Chicago, have severely narrowed those restrictions. So, the NRA has introduced bills that would reimpose the statewide standard on the entire state.
Both of these concepts have been dealt with before by the General Assembly. What's different this year is that the NRA has introduced different versions of each idea, and done so simultaneously in both legislative chambers, overwhelming the other side. The anti-gunners, who are accustomed to opposing a handful of highly visible bills every year, are now being forced to lobby against a ton of bills, not knowing which will be called for a vote or when.
The NRA has about a half dozen bills to mandate the destruction of Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) card applications. The NRA believes that police can use the applications to track law abiding gun owners. The police hotly deny this, but they and their allies are forced to expend enormous amounts of nervous energy keeping track of just this one issue.
In the Democratic controlled House, at least, one big reason that so many of the NRA's bills are being allowed to the floor is because downstate is the only region of the state where House Republicans have any real hope of picking up seats next year, and the further south you go, the better the GOP's chances. Gun control isn't exactly a popular subject in southern Illinois, so the NRA bills will allow targeted House Democrats to greatly bolster their credibility with their single-issue voters.
But because Mayor Daley thinks so highly of his own, anti-gun bills, the House Democratic leadership has steered most of his legislation to sympathetic committees.
The Wilmette bill and the presidential race last year, which saw Democratic nominee John Kerry waving a shotgun in the air at every opportunity, appeared to shift the momentum in Springfield towards the pro gun side. So the anti gun forces are running themselves ragged this spring, hoping to avoid another debacle like last November's veto session. The NRA doesn't have the sort of national media attention behind its efforts this spring like it had with the Wilmette bill last year, but the group seems more optimistic about its chances than it has in ages.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com.