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New attention on Illinois gun laws following elderly man's shooting of home invaders

Published: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 9:43 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO (MCT) — An 80-year-old man who was arrested after shooting an alleged burglar in his South Side Chicago home brought renewed attention Tuesday to Illinois gun laws, this time involving whether an elderly resident with weapons convictions from decades ago should have the right to use a gun to defend himself.

Neighbors of Homer Wright, who was described by friends as a "pillar of the community," rallied behind him, calling for prosecutors to drop charges against the senior citizen who shot and injured an intruder who had broken into his Englewood home while Wright and his wife slept.

While authorities have not raised doubts about Wright's claim of self-defense, the case points to the complexities that prosecutors sometimes face when determining whether to charge people who illegally have a firearm at home. It also sheds light on Illinois' self-defense statute at a time when Florida's "stand your ground" law is being scrutinized nationally in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

In high-crime neighborhoods such as Englewood, some residents argued that it was unfair to target Wright, a victim of crime numerous times, regardless of his past felony convictions. Wright said he and his wife, Helen, moved into the popular neighborhood bar about a decade ago because it had been broken into at least four times. Wright, who said he has undergone triple bypass surgery, has operated the tavern for more than 40 years.

"If somebody breaks into a place where they are not supposed to be, I bet something will happen," Wright told the Chicago Tribune as he returned home Tuesday afternoon after spending about 30 hours in custody.

"It's wrong," he said in expressing anger over his arrest. "Unjust that I can't protect me."

Wright was charged with unlawful use of a weapon after police discovered he had two prior weapons convictions dating back years. In 1994, he was charged with unlawful use of a weapon by a felon after police responded to a call of an assault in progress at Wright's tavern in the 6400 block of South Morgan Street. A witness told police Wright had threatened him with a gun. Officers patted Wright down and found a handgun. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months of probation.

In 1990, Wright was arrested with several other people loading boxes of liquor into a vehicle that had been taken illegally from a liquor distribution warehouse, according to court records. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft and was given two years probation, records show. Information about a 1968 weapons conviction was not immediately available.

Illinois law clearly states that citizens have the right to defend themselves if they fear bodily harm, but according to legal experts, prosecutors have lots of leeway in determining whether to file charges related to illegal possession of a firearm.

In the last two years, there have been at least three cases where Chicago residents shot someone in self-defense at their home, including two that occurred before the U.S. Supreme Court forced the city to pass a new ordinance allowing residents to have a handgun at home for protection. In all three cases, the shootings were determined to be justified and no charges were filed.

"It is pure discretion," said Robert Loeb, a former Cook County prosecutor who now works as a criminal-defense lawyer and is an adjunct professor at DePaul University College of Law. "There is nothing about the law that says someone who uses an illegal gun to defend themselves has to be charged or will be charged.

"Police take guns off the streets all the time without charging people," he said. "This is one they easily could not have charged him."

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, said it is always discretionary whether to approve charges. In Wright's case, he clearly fell under the statute that bars felons from possessing guns.

"Under the law, it is clearly chargeable. He has two prior felony convictions," Daly said. "But we are evaluating the case at this point and will have more to say at the preliminary hearing stage."

Arthur Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Loyola University, said the case in Florida could have weighed heavily on prosecutors' decision to charge Wright.

"Everyone is second-guessing the Florida law and similar laws altogether because of what happened there," said Lurigio, referring to the Trayvon Martin controversy in which authorities failed to charge a neighborhood watchman who shot and killed the unarmed teenager he thought looked suspicious. "If there had not been an instance in Florida, maybe there would not be charges in this case, which is clearly self-defense."

The National Rifle Association has sought to loosen gun laws across the country, pummeling Illinois — the only state that does not allow citizens to carry handguns outside the home — with lawsuits.

"Human beings do have the right to defend themselves," said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association. "If this was his only chance for self-defense, what else was he going to do?"

According to Wright, he was first awakened by his wife at about 4 a.m. Monday after she heard a noise in the bathroom. But when he got there, he saw a shadow fleeing. A couple of hours later, he said, the intruder broke in again, and this time, Wright grabbed his handgun and shot him.

The intruder, identified by police as Anthony Robinson, 19, had broken through several boards and entered through a rear bathroom window attempting to steal some liquor from the bar.

Robinson was charged with felony burglary after he was treated for a gunshot wound on his lower right leg.

Wright's modest bar is located in a neighborhood where foreclosures have left a trail of abandoned and boarded-up buildings. In the back portion of the bar where he lives, Wright wrapped the entrances with metal fencing in an attempt to keep intruders out.

"If a man can't defend himself from harm, what can he do?" Englewood resident Darryl Smith, said following a news conference attended by dozens of longtime residents. "If he hadn't defended himself, we would be here for a different reason — because an intruder came in and killed him."

Some neighbors said Wright's arrest will cause friction between the police and the community.

"This tells us we will be arrested if we defend ourselves," said Anita Dominique, a block club president. "... I'm not going to stand for this."

Following his release on a signature bond, Wright said he was optimistic.

"This is our living," he said of the tavern. "I'm going to be here. I'm not leaving."

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(Chicago Tribune reporter Jason Meisner contributed to this report.)

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