Is your alderman packing heat?

None in Austin are known to, but others in the city are proud gun owners

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By FAITH OKPOTOR, Medill News Service

Many " perhaps most " Chicago aldermen have chosen not to exercise their statutory right to carry a weapon.

Most, that is, except the fiery, hat-wearing alderman from the Third Ward.

Dorothy Tillman startled those present at a Police and Fire Committee meeting of the Chicago City Council several years ago, an aldermanic aide recalled, when the issue of aldermen owning guns was broached.

"I carry a gun," she announced, pulling a pistol out of her purse.

A survey of all 50 aldermen had one aldermanic aide " not from Tillman's office " say, "You should talk to Tillman. Tillman is your girl."

Despite the fact that it is illegal for ordinary citizens to carry concealed weapons in Chicago, it's different for alderman. An 1872 state law allows aldermen and other municipal officials, as peace officers, to carry guns, make arrests and detain suspects "after receiving a certificate attesting to the successful completion of a training course administered by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training Standards Board."

Sheila Albright, an assistant to the director of the training standards board, said her agency does not have a record of how many municipal officials have guns, nor of how many have undergone the necessary training.

Some aldermen who do not personally bear arms said they understand why others would want to.

"I don't need one," said Ald. Brian Doherty (41st), the lone City Council Republican from the far Northwest Side. "I feel secure in this area."

But Doherty said he would carry a gun if he lived in a high-crime neighborhood.

"In this position we don't have bodyguards," Doherty said. "[Aldermen with guns] have the ability to defend themselves."

He added that Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the Finance Committee, and Tillman both carry guns. Neither Burke nor Tillman returned numerous calls seeking comment.

Burke also has the distinction of being the only alderman with a security detail from the Chicago Police Department.

Of the 15 aldermen who responded to inquiries, 14 said they do not have guns, six said they had no problem with aldermen being allowed to carry concealed weapons and two disagree with the idea altogether.

Those two, Toni Preckwinkle (4th) and Latasha Thomas (17th), were vocal.

"I am a big supporter of gun control," Preckwinkle said curtly, "and I don't carry a gun."

Thomas said, "I am not a fan of guns. I don't think I need it. I use the police just like any other citizen." Thomas also said it is unnecessary for aldermen to pack heat, and that if the matter ever came before her, she would vote to repeal the law.

Another alderman opposed to guns is Walter Burnett Jr. (27th).

"I am totally against it," Burnett said, adding, however, that he would not criticize his colleagues who have chosen to own guns. "It has an effect on people's emotions. They get confrontational when they have a gun."

Emotions definitely ran wild on one occasion. Tillman allegedly brandished her gun during a shouting and shoving match at a ward-redistricting meeting in November 1991. She allegedly pulled a .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver. The incident resulted in a reference to Chicago by a Washington Post writer as the "wild, wild (Mid)west"

Perhaps the most remarkable thing over the 134 years the law has been in effect is that no gunfights have taken place during a City Council meeting or the often contentious committee meetings " such as deliberations for the recently passed smoking ban.

Former state Rep. Lee Preston, D-Chicago, now a Cook County judge, said he unsuccessfully tried to repeal the law when he was serving in the General Assembly. Preston said his measure failed because aldermen were successful in getting their legislators to protect their clout.

"It is bizarre," Preston said. "It makes absolutely no sense. They have badges; they can initiate arrests. The law is archaic. It ought to be repealed."

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