(MCT) — Illinois' leading Democrats on Monday pushed for more gun control in the wake of last week's school shootings in Connecticut, but gun-owner rights groups criticized the move as politicizing a national tragedy and said they were prepared to fight in Washington and Springfield.
U.S. Sen Dick Durbin, the state's senior senator and the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber, called for congressional hearings aimed at finding constitutional limits to Second Amendment rights while Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel re-emphasized their long-standing call to ban semi-automatic, assault-style weapons at the state and federal level.
The efforts by the three Democrats, motivated by Friday's shootings in Newtown, Conn., that included the deaths of 20 schoolchildren, came against a backdrop of a federal appeals court ruling opening the way for concealed possession of firearms in public in Illinois.
"It's time that we as a city have an assault weapons ban, it's time that we as a state have an assault weapons ban, and it's time that we as a country have an assault weapons ban," Emanuel said at a Chicago Police Department graduation and promotion ceremony. "And I would hope the leadership in Congress now will have a vote of conscience. It is time to have that vote."
Quinn, at a separate appearance, said he hoped the scope of the tragedy would motivate state lawmakers to act by early next month on a state ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Lawmakers recently rejected Quinn's attempt to use his amendatory veto power to rewrite a bill to impose such a ban.
Officials for the Illinois State Rifle Association sent an email to their members accusing Quinn and Emanuel of being among the "political opportunists who have swooped down on Newtown like a flock of vultures hungry to devour the 2nd Amendment."
"The echoes of the sirens had hardly faded when Quinn and other gun-control extremists hit the airwaves calling for the passage of legislation that would effectively abolish the 2nd Amendment to our Constitution," the group said. "Law-abiding gun owners have grown used to being blamed for the misdeeds of others and we're equally used to mounting effective defenses against those who would deny us our rights."
The call to action by Emanuel and Quinn came as another home-state Democrat, President Barack Obama, appeared to be taking a more cautious approach on the gun issue. A day after Obama pledged to use the power of his office to prevent gun violence, the White House did not provide any details on an approach, and spokesman Jay Carney said it was a "complex problem that requires a complex solution."
Durbin, a prominent Obama campaign surrogate who introduced the president as the party's nominee at the last two presidential conventions, has long supported additional gun control laws. But he also appeared to follow the lead of the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who said the chamber "will engage in a meaningful and thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow violence to grow."
On the Senate floor Monday, Durbin asked gun control opponents and gun rights supporters to try to find common ground.
"What will it take for a majority of Americans to speak out for sensible firearms policy in our nation?" Durbin asked. "It will take more than the shootings on streets in Chicago, East St. Louis and cities across the country. And sadly, it will take more than 26 victims, including 20 children, in a Connecticut grade school."
Durbin said the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights will hold hearings on the Second Amendment and gun control early next year. Durbin is chairman of the subcommittee.
A federal ban on assault weapons — which prohibited 19 specific types of military-style semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines — expired in 2004 under the Republican White House of President George W. Bush and a GOP-controlled Congress after 10 years. Emanuel has repeatedly touted his work as a top aide to President Bill Clinton in enacting the ban.
Like Durbin, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy connected the Connecticut tragedy to the steady drumbeat of gun violence in America's cities.
"Any major city in this country is experiencing ongoing gun violence," McCarthy said. "It's these issues like this that all of the sudden explode and the gun debate starts and at the end of the day, nobody does anything about it. ... It would be nice if we see some action this time, and it would probably at least be some sort of way to try to make sense of a tragedy moving forward."
In Illinois, Quinn has called repeatedly for a state ban on semi-automatic weapons, most recently last week when the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it was unconstitutional for Illinois to ban comprehensively the carrying of firearms outside the home. The appeals court gave the state until June to try to craft new gun regulations.
Illinois is the only state in the nation to prohibit the concealed carrying of weapons in public.
In late July, when Quinn sought to write his own assault weapons ban onto another bill, it followed another mass killing — a shooting spree at a movie theater in Colorado that left a dozen dead and 50 people injured.
On Monday, the Democratic governor said he had reached out to legislative leaders as well as supporters of a ban on semi-automatic firearms and urged them to act quickly.
"This is the moment to do it," Quinn said.
"All of us who are parents, watching those grieving parents losing their children, their precious children, we've got to make sure that they did not die in vain. And one way to keep faith with those victims of that massacre on Friday is for Illinois, the heart of the heartland, to ban assault weapons," he said.
Lawmakers are scheduled to return into their lame-duck session shortly after the New Year, and Quinn already has called upon them to act on a number of high-profile issues, including gay marriage and public employee pension reform. A Quinn aide said the governor also is studying the possibility of pushing a gun measure after new legislators are sworn in Jan. 9, when more Democrats will take office.
The ban Quinn previously sought would have prohibited the sale, delivery, manufacture and possession of AR-15-style assault rifles, a civilian version of the military's M-16. A variant of that firearm was used in the Connecticut shooting, authorities said.
But the state rifle association, a lobbying group that holds great sway over Downstate Republican and Democratic lawmakers, urged gun owners to contact their state legislators "and deliver the message that lawful firearm owners will not play the role of scapegoat."
"As we have said many times before, gun control is a disease and you are the cure," the group told its members. "We're about to face an epidemic of attempted gun grabs. Be prepared and arm yourself with the resolve to uphold that which so many brave men and women have died to defend."