By John Byrne
6:42 PM CDT, October 15, 2013
Mayor Rahm Emanuel vowed Tuesday to use his political capital to get state lawmakers to pass tougher illegal firearm possession laws, but his plan faces a lukewarm reception from a General Assembly already facing a tableau of issues and weary of tackling a new round of controversial gun legislation.
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez and city law enforcement back Emanuel's latest effort, which he hopes will help address Chicago's high-profile gun violence problem.
But there's also significant opposition from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and other politicians troubled by its potential costs as well as a high incarceration rate in the African-American community.
The mayor, joined at an event by the parents of gun-crime victims, said he has made personal pleas to lawmakers to support a measure requiring a minimum three-year sentence for illegal gun possession, with 85 percent of the time served behind bars.
"I will do whatever (I can for) those who are leading our efforts down in Springfield, whether it's go down, make phone calls. I did it this morning, I did it last week and I'll continue to do it until this effort (succeeds), because I think this is the opportunity to pass this legislation," Emanuel said ahead of the fall session that starts next week.
The mayor pushed a similar plan during the legislature's spring session, but it fell by the wayside as lawmakers were forced by a federal appeals court to craft a law allowing and regulating possession of firearms in public. The heavy lifting to reach a compromise on that major issue has left those on both sides less than enthused to consider Emanuel's plan.
Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, who negotiated the concealed carry measure on behalf of gun-rights groups, wouldn't directly link Emanuel's proposal to the new law. But he maintained the mayor's plan could ensnarl law-abiding citizens and put them in prison for three years due to bureaucratic mistakes.
Phelps said he would like to see judges have more discretion in sentencing. He also said the background of the accused should be taken into account so that someone without a criminal record should not face the same penalties as a person with a long history of run-ins with the law.
"Chicago does not have a gun problem. They have a gang problem and a people problem," Phelps said. "That gun's not walking up and down the street by itself going off. There's a person pulling that trigger."
Sen. Kwame Raoul, a South Side Democrat who negotiated the concealed carry measure on behalf of gun control advocates, said he was torn by the mayor's "desire and sense of urgency to do something about" gun violence and fears that an "unintended defendant would more likely be a person of color."
Raoul said the legalization of the concealed carry of firearms could help Emanuel's efforts since people who are legally certified to publicly carry a gun no longer would face the type of illegal weapons possession charge that the mayor wants punishable by a mandatory sentence.
Sponsoring Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, said now that concealed carry is settled, it should mean more time and less political pressure around the mayor's plan. Still, Zalewski acknowledged the legislature's need to address the state's $100 billion unfunded public employee pension liability could be among a host of issues crowding out Emanuel's gun-crime proposal.
"There's a case to be made that pensions should be our No. 1 priority, but we can multitask, and walk and chew gum at the same time," Zalewski said.
A state panel charged with coming up with the impact of new prison sentencing proposals has estimated the potential cost of Emanuel's plan at nearly $131 million a year to deal with housing offenders in an already overcrowded penitentiary system. But the University of Chicago Crime Lab contended the state group overestimated incarceration costs by not factoring in the potential deterrent effect of such a law.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has said he would review Emanuel's proposal. A spokeswoman said Tuesday the governor believes the most effective concept of reducing violence is to come up with "a comprehensive approach."
Perhaps the most telling prospect signaling the fate of Emanuel's legislation came from a spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, the Chicago Democrat who is one of the mayor's closest allies in the legislature.
Cullerton "shares the mayor's goal of reducing gun violence in the city," spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon wrote in an email. "However, we are still reviewing the proposal, implementation concerns and cost estimates with the caucus and other stakeholders."
Tribune reporters Rick Pearson, Monique Garcia and Hal Dardick contributed.
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