By Mike Riopell
Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday signed legislation to give the state more oversight over Illinois firearms dealers, appearing with anti-violence advocates at a West Side elementary school and saying he'll push for further gun control measures.
Pritzker's signature on the legislation to require gun stores to get state certifications is another clear break with former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in the opening days of the Democratic governor's administration, and the move immediately puts him at odds with opponents of stricter gun laws. Minutes before Pritzker put pen to paper amid anti-violence advocates at Young Elementary School, the Illinois State Rifle Association threatened to challenge the new law in court.
"Just because we're signing this today doesn't mean there isn't more to do," Pritzker said. "But this particular bill is very important."
Pritzker said he wants Illinois to outlaw bump stocks and trigger cranks this year, as well as put more money toward social services. But he said "I don't know that" lawmakers would push for a ban on assault weapons this year.
Under the new law Pritzker signed Thursday, it would be illegal for retailers to sell guns without being certified by the state. To qualify, stores first must be licensed by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Then, they would have to submit a copy of that license to the Illinois State Police, along with an affidavit declaring it remains valid. Shop owners would have to install surveillance equipment, maintain an electronic inventory, establish anti-theft measures and require employees to undergo annual training.
A certification would cost retailers a maximum of $1,500, and the regulations would apply to small businesses as well as big-box retailers. Sellers without a retail location would be charged $300 for certification. Supporters contend the new rules could reduce gun violence because federal regulators are stretched too thin to adequately handle all the shops operating in Illinois.
A large group of Democratic officials joined Pritzker at Thursday's event, crediting the new governor for signing the bill so early in his administration.
"In four days, you figured out something that some people couldn't figure out in four years," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. "And I want to compliment you for that wisdom."
But the path to Thursday's ceremonial bill signing was a winding one that was set up by lawmakers months before Pritzker was elected.
Rauner vetoed a similar gun store proposal in the spring, calling it "duplicative" because the federal government already licenses firearms retailers. He said adding another layer of oversight would be costly for businesses and "do little to improve public safety."
Lawmakers approved a new version in May while Rauner was governor, but Democratic Senate President John Cullerton held on to the paperwork to keep it off the Republican's desk so that he couldn't veto it again. Democrats finally sent the bill to Pritzker on Wednesday, and he signed it into law Thursday.
Illinois State Rifle Association Executive Director Richard Pearson declined to say whether that unusual process is at the root of the group's threat of a legal challenge. But he said in a statement that "nothing in this bill is going to enhance public safety in Illinois."
"The only thing that is being accomplished here is the creation of a bureaucratic nightmare for gun dealers," he said. "Rest assured, we will be challenging this new law in court."
Backers of the new law, though, said it could help prevent illegal gun purchases in Illinois, as well as straw purchases, transactions in which someone buys a gun on behalf of a person who is barred from doing so.
While Illinois is the largest single source for guns later used in crimes in Chicago, weapons also make their way here by way of states such as Indiana, Mississippi and Wisconsin, according to a city of Chicago trace data report from 2017. Wisconsin ranked fourth on the list, with about 4 percent of Chicago's crime guns sold at dealers in that state.
The handgun used to kill Chicago Police Department Cmdr. Paul Bauer, for example, began its tragic path in December 2011 at a small shop in south-central Wisconsin.
Despite Pritzker's call for further legislation targeting what he calls "weapons of war," the governor declining on Thursday to embrace a ban on assault weapons could be a reflection of the complicated politics surrounding gun laws in Illinois -- where lawmakers often split over geography, in addition to party. For example, Senate Republican leader Bill Brady of Bloomington voted against the gun dealer licensing bill that became law Thursday. House Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs voted for it.
Democratic state Sen. Don Harmon of Oak Park said he first worked on the issue in 2003. Democrats have controlled the Illinois House, Senate and governor's office for 12 of the 16 years since then, but it took unique circumstances for the bill to land on Pritzker's desk four days into his term.
Lawmakers voted for the law last year in the wake of Bauer's killing and the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla. In thanking anti-violence advocates, Harmon also credited groups that formed or strengthened in the aftermath of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"When Parkland happened, those groups had reached a level of political sophistication and maturity, that we were able to capitalize," he added.
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