News Column

Gun Ban Clears Ill. Senate Committee

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Illinois senators returned to the Capitol on Wednesday with plans to vote on legalizing gay marriage and banning certain types of guns, but they made no apparent progress on solving the worsening state pension crisis.

The vote on gay marriage was expected to take place today. The proposed gun ban cleared a Senate committee Wednesday night and also could be voted on by the full Senate today.

Senators are in Springfield through Friday for a lame-duck session.

The 97th General Assembly ends Jan. 9, with the swearing-in of a new legislature that will include representatives and senators who were elected in November.

That means there are many lame-duck lawmakers who may be more willing to go on the record with votes on contentious issues. In a lame-duck session in 2011, the legislature approved a 67 percent increase in the state income tax, equal to one week of a person's pay.

Gov. Pat Quinn has made it a priority for the legislature to find a solution to the state employee retirement programs, which are underfunded by $96 billion. Quinn on Wednesday said the pension issue is "our state's own fiscal cliff."

But legislators so far haven't coalesced behind any single plan on the pension issue.

Supporters of gay marriage say they have enough votes to make Illinois the 10th state to legalize same-sex unions.

A ban on military-style assault weapons is on the agenda after the Connecticut shootings that claimed 26 lives at a school. Gun-rights supporters say they fear legislators will try to ban all semiautomatic weapons.

Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, questioned whether gay marriage and gun restrictions should be legislative priorities right now.

"With higher taxes and fewer job opportunities, should gay marriage and gun control be first on the lame-duck agenda?" McCarter asked.

Members of the House of Representatives return Sunday.

Gun Ban

An Illinois Senate committee approved restrictions Wednesday on semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, despite criticism from gun-rights groups that the measures go too far and amount to an assault-weapons ban "on steroids."

Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge said he intends to press legislation to limit ammunition magazines to ten or fewer rounds. Kotowski says he wants to concentrate on clips because high-capacity magazines make assault weapons more lethal.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Tony Munoz sponsored the second bill banning assault weapons "designed for war."

The text of Munoz' bill is listed as an amendment to House Bill 1263.

It would ban specific semiautomatic guns such as the Colt AR-15, the Intratec Tec-9, the Beretta AR-70, Kalashnikovs, and makes such as Norinco and Uzi. It also would ban any semiautomatic shotgun that has a revolving cylinder, a folding or telescoping stock, a pistol grip or thumbhole stock, or a shroud that encircles the barrel to prevent burning the shooter's non-trigger hand.

It also would ban any semiautomatic pistol that can accept a detachable magazine and has one of five other characteristics, such as a weight exceeding 50 ounces when unloaded.

In addition, it would ban semiautomatic rifles with a fixed magazine that can accept more than 10 bullets. Also on the list: semiautomatic rifles that accept detachable magazines and have one of three other characteristics, such as a pistol grip or thumbhole stock.

National Rifle Association lobbyist Todd Vandermyde told lawmakers the bill would restrict about 75 percent of handguns and 50 percent of long guns in circulation today. He also said it would treat law-abiding gun owners like criminals, and is in conflict with Second Amendment rights upheld by the courts.

"I've never seen a piece of legislation that tramples on so many court decisions," Vandermyde said.

When asked how a ban on assault weapons would keep them off the street, when a Chicago ban on handguns wasn't able to keep handguns off the streets of Chicago, Munoz said: "You can never be 100 percent, but we're hoping that by having that ban, at least in our state, it's a start."

The measures sponsored by Munoz and Kotowski cleared the Senate's Public Health Committee on Wednesday night and now go to the Senate floor for a vote. The votes in the committee were along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed. There are no metro-east senators on the committee.

McCarter vowed to oppose the ban.

"I will do everything in my power, including my vote, to protect the Second Amendment," McCarter said. "Criminals will always have access to guns. Law-abiding citizens need every opportunity to protect themselves, their families and their property from those who would seek to harm them."

Same-sex Marriage

Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, who is a sponsor of the gay marriage bill, said she expects it to be called for a vote Thursday.

Members of Illinois religious groups -- from Catholic to Muslim -- have sent every state lawmaker a letter calling gay marriage "dangerous" to religious freedom.

The letter sent Wednesday is signed or supported by leaders of more than 1,700 churches, congregations and faith groups.

The Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Belleville, is one of a dozen religious leaders who signed the letter by name.

Proponents of the legislation say it would legalize civil marriage. Religious organizations would not have to recognize the civil marriages.

But the letter says religious freedom extends beyond the house of worship. A law would "compel" faith groups to treat same-sex unions as the equivalent of traditional marriage.

The letter states: "The ongoing attempts to alter the definition of marriage in civil law are full of serious danger, primarily by degrading the cultural understanding of marriage to an emotional bond between any two adults and by giving rise to a profound interference with the exercise of religious freedom for those persons and religious institutions whose faith and doctrine recognize the spiritual foundation of marriage as an authorized union between a man and a woman."

Proponents of gay marriage also are lining up support. Actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who is openly gay and stars on the ABC show "Modern Family," planned to lobby Thursday in Springfield in support of gay marriage. Other supporters include Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Three of the metro-east's four senators are likely to vote against gay marriage. Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, voted against civil unions in 2010, and also voted Wednesday against a procedural measure that would have attached the gay-marriage language to existing legislation.

Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, and McCarter also voted against civil unions in 2010. Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, who is the Senate Majority Leader, voted in favor of civil unions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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