Divided on 'conceal and carry'

Town hall attendees mostly in favor of citizens carrying firearms

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By LA RISA LYNCH

Annette Nance-Holt was in the minority.

The mother of a slain 16-year-old teen, Nance-Holt was among a handful of people last week speaking out against carrying a concealed handgun during a West Side town hall meeting. She lost her son, Blair, to gun violence in May 2007 when a teen fired shots into a crowded CTA bus. Blair Holt was killed while four others were wounded. At an Aug. 31, town hall hosted by state Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8), Nance-Holt said greater access to guns does not equal increased safety.

"Had everyone had a gun on the bus that day, there would have been a whole lot more people dead besides my son," she said. "So I understand that people are scared...but I lost everything, and I still don't want a gun."

The meeting drew more than 200 attendees to an Austin banquet facility at 4630 W. Augusta. The majority there supported carrying a concealed firearm for self-protection. While the discussions were heated, the event remained civil between panelists and the audience.

Panelists in favor of conceal and carry, including members from the National Rile Association (NRA) and the Illinois State Rifle Association (ISRA), centered their arguments on several Supreme Court cases. In one particular case-McDonald v. Chicago-the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution's Second Amendment applied to states and local governments. That June 2010 ruling struck down Chicago's 1982 handgun ban and neighboring suburban Oak Park's 1984 ban.

The NRA's Todd Vandermyde explained that the "context" in many of these court cases guarantees "individuals' right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation."

That right goes beyond the "borders" of someone's home or place of business, Vandermyde insisted. He noted that Illinois is the only state that does not have a conceal-and-carry law while 49 others have some version of it.

"If this was such a bad public policy, why are 49 other states not repealing it?" he said.

The rationale that arming citizens with firearms would create more violence is flawed, added Colleen Lawson, a plaintiff in the McDonald v. Chicago case. Crime, she noted, is also committed by knives, fist and feet and those victims are just as injured or dead.

"We are the only state in the entire country where criminals are guaranteed a legally disarmed victim on the streets," she said, adding that city aldermen are allowed to carry handguns. "These are the same people telling you that it is not a good idea."

Garret Evans, a panelist, however, disagreed. Evans still has a mangled bullet in his leg that serves as a reminder of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting where a semi-automatic handgun left 33 dead.

Evans maintained that nothing good comes from having more firearms on the streets. Instead he wishes for programs to curtail gun violence, which he said is no longer a West or South side phenomena tied to urban issues like drugs.

"We are having shootings all over the place and look at the reasons - spousal issues, no job, no money, no car," Evans said. "Now, they are shooting for less tangible things like how you raise a household."

Those opposing conceal and carry said gun violence stems from lax firearm laws that allow criminals to have easy access to guns. They urged stricter gun control laws that could title guns similar to how cars are registered to owners. They also want identification numbers etched on bullets to better track purchases.

But Tom Vander Berk, of the Illinois Brady Campaign, called conceal and carry a "slippery slope" without safeguards ensuring guns don't end up in the wrong peoples hands. Vander Berk lost his 15-year-old son to gun violence 19 years ago.

"We diverted a disaster and we need to continue to do that until a responsible system is in place," he said.

One former Chicago police and one who's still on the force were on opposite sides of the debate.

Ernest Brown of the Chicago Police Department argued officers' safety would be jeopardized if more guns were on the streets. Brown, chief of Bureau Patrol, noted that assaults against police officers tripled from just 700 in 2000 to more than 2,100 last year.

"Officers' safety translates into your safety," he said. "If officers aren't safe, then you aren't going to be safe," Brown said.

For that same reason, former police veteran David Lemieux believes residents should be armed. While Lemieux said there are police officers who abide by the 'serve and protect' creed, there's an equal number who are "indifferent" to minorities or "any white folks who are a little less than affluent."

"Why would you count on someone who doesn't like you to protect your home?" Lemieux, a 26-year CPD veteran, asked.

Austin resident Charles Thompson exemplified the view held by a majority of attendees.

Thompson said he has the right to protect his 8-year-old son, and he urged politicians to "stop tying us down" with laws to circumvent the public's right to bear arms.

"I have a right to defend myself. I have a right to defend my family," he said. "If something happens, I cannot depend on the police to show up instantaneously no matter how well-meaning they are. It is not fair to me."

State Rep. Ford said he hosted the town hall to hear residents' concerns about conceal-and-carry. The feedback, he said, will help him better understand the issue. A bill in the General Assembly that allowed individuals to carry concealed firearms was defeated in May, but more than likely will resurface in the fall session.

"Right now, all we hear is what the lobbyists want in Springfield," said Ford, who voted "present" on the bill. "We don't get the real consensus of the community. For the most part, I hear the community say they want conceal and carry."

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