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Analysis: Obama's home state offers a lesson on path to gun laws

An Evanston police officer documents some information on a firearm that was turned in as part of an amnesty-based gun buyback program in Eva
An Evanston police officer documents some information on a firearm that was turned in as part of an amnesty-based gun buyback program in Eva

By Greg McCune

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The failure of President Barack Obama's home state of Illinois to pass new restrictions on guns could prove instructive for Obama's own fledging campaign to enact stricter national gun laws.

Within days after a gunman killed 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, some Illinois state legislators sought to capitalize on the national outcry about gun violence to launch a new broadside on the availability of guns.

The Illinois proposals were similar to the plan unveiled by Obama on Wednesday to ban so-called assault weapons and ammunition clips that permit rapid firing of multiple bullets.

But even in Illinois, a so-called blue state that went for Obama in the November presidential election, the gun proposals faltered early in the process, done in by the state's urban-rural divide and opposition from the country's powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association.

Although the bills were approved by an Illinois Senate panel, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against, the plan never made it to a vote on the floor of the state Senate -- despite a Democratic majority.

The measures were seen as too restrictive, and some doubted they would work. Lawmakers were distracted by other issues, also a factor in Washington.

"It is hard to overstate how touchy people are on that issue," Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield, said.

That said, New York has proven that tighter gun restrictions can be passed. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, this week signed into law one of the nation's gun-control measures and the first to be enacted since the Newtown massacre. And that in a state with its own urban-rural divide and a Senate controlled by Republicans.

URBAN VS RURAL

The party-line committee vote in Illinois belied a more subtle force: regional demographics. Despite the weight of Chicago in state politics, outside the state's northeastern corner the wide area known as Downstate Illinois is a speckling of towns, small and mid-sized cities and vast rural stretches. And the divide on gun control crosses party lines, with many Democrats as well as Republicans staunch supporters of gun ownership.

Chicago is suffering a wave of gang-related shootings, and its murder rate is up sharply. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was so frustrated by the lack of action in Springfield that on Thursday he introduced gun limits in the City Council.

"Democrats in Chicago certainly want to get rid of guns," said state Representative Jack Franks, a self-described moderate Democrat from an ex-urban and rural area west of Chicago. "Democrats who live Downstate, that's part of our culture."

With neither Illinois' Downstate, mostly Republican bloc nor solidly Democratic Chicago and its nearest suburbs having enough votes for a majority in the state Senate, the more distant Chicago suburbs and ex-urbs form the key battleground over gun control, with some lawmakers strong supporters of gun control and others guarded, political analysts said.

Mooney, the political science professor, said Democrats in Illinois could probably cobble together a coalition of Chicago and suburban votes to pass some gun controls but at the risk of alienating Downstate.

"They are reluctant to go to the mat on that," Mooney said of the state's Democratic leaders.

IN THE MIDDLE

Franks is the sort of elected official in the political middle who proponents of gun control would need to convince to pass new gun restrictions.

He is a gun owner and supporter of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing the right to bear arms. "But I don't think we need Uzi machine guns to go hunt," Franks said.

Asked if he would have voted for the Illinois gun proposal as presented earlier this month, he said: "The devil is in the details. It was much too broad. They were overreaching."

The Illinois proposal would have banned the possession, delivery, sale and purchase of semi-automatic weapons, assault weapon attachments, .50 caliber rifles and .50 caliber cartridges. It included a long list of makes and models of guns covered, including Kalashnikov, Uzi and AR-15, the type of weapon used by the gunman in the Newtown school shooting.

New York's new gun restrictions ban assault weapons with certain military features rather than listing them by name, an approach that a sponsor of the bill said was because gun makers simply change the model number or weapon name to avoid laws that list types.

CONFISCATING GUNS

The proposal in Illinois drew immediate opposition from gun lobbyists.

The Illinois State Rifle Association, which is aligned with the National Rifle Association, issued an "alert" to members. It said in a statement that the law would have covered 83 percent of guns and would cause them to be confiscated.

NRA lobbyist Todd Vandermyde criticized the proposals at the state capitol in Springfield, saying even some hunting rifles would be banned. "This is an attempt to shame law-abiding gun owners... treat them like sex offenders," he said.

Lawmaker Franks said he received hundreds of emails and phone calls from supporters of gun ownership.

Gun control supporters said the confiscation assertion was hyperbole. The text of the proposal said that assault weapons already possessed by Illinois residents were excluded provided that they were registered with the state police.

Some Illinois lawmakers were distracted by financial and economic issues and preferred not to deal with gun legislation. A higher priority for them was the state's fiscal crisis, which threatens a downgrade of the state's already low debt rating, an echo of the debt ceiling debate looming over Obama and Congress.

Proponents of control have already vowed to try again later in the year.

"Teddy bears are more regulated than guns. That's got to change," said state Senator Dan Kotowski, a Democrat from suburban Chicago and a sponsor of one of the gun control proposals.

(Additional reporting by Joanne von Alroth, Barbara Goldberg and James B. Kelleher; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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