Friday, June 18, 2010

City Council Hearing Turns Into Rally For Handgun Ban

Posted By on 06.18.10 at 07:12 PM

City officials continue to show no interest in examining the effectiveness of gun restrictions, their leading strategy in fighting violence.

The latest example came Friday morning, when the City Council’s police and fire committee held a rally for the city’s handgun ban—and Mayor Daley’s still-unfolding plans for curtailing access to firearms in the likely event that the ban is overturned by the Supreme Court.

Of course, that wasn’t the stated purpose of the event in council chambers. Officially the committee met for a hastily called “hearing to discuss violence and fire arm registration regulation.”

But from its opening moments, the hearing became a platform for city officials, gun control advocates, and community activists to argue that the city needs to continue to find ways to keep Chicagoans from legally acquiring guns. In nearly two hours of testimony, not one witness raised questions about the utility of the gun ban or other gun restrictions, nor did anyone discuss other potential causes of violence—even though Chicago averages several shootings a day even with the ban in place.

Police committee chairman Anthony Beale, alderman of the Ninth Ward, said there was no need to hear from opponents of the ban, or even skeptics. “I think anybody who’s fighting common-sense gun legislation will be considered the bad guy,” he said. “We’re trying to make our streets safer.”

ANTHONY BEALE
  • SAM ADAMS
  • ANTHONY BEALE

Still, you didn’t have to be a card-carrying member of the NRA to find the discussion strangely lopsided.

“I was waiting to hear from someone from the other side that I could argue with,” Sixth Ward alderman Freddrenna Lyle said afterward.

That’s not to say that those who did speak didn’t make compelling points.

Robyn Thomas, executive director of the San Francisco-based Legal Community Against Violence, told the handful of aldermen present—the number in attendance varied from nine to two—that even if the ban is struck down later this month, the council could enact ordinances requiring more stringent training and registration requirements. Harvard University economist David Hemenway summarized a number of studies linking legal access to guns with higher rates of accidental deaths, suicides, and even robberies and burglaries.

And it was impossible not to be moved by the appeals of several parents whose children have been killed by guns in the last few years. “I’m asking that, if the gun ban is lifted, that we put a strict law in place requiring that the guns have to be locked up in people’s homes,” said Pamela Montgomery-Bosley, whose 18-year-old son Terrell was slain in 2006.

But the origins and point of the hearing—aside from promoting the city's anti-violence strategy—remain unclear.

Notice of the meeting was posted on the city clerk’s Web site Wednesday at 11:52, less than two days before the hearing was held.

Beale wouldn’t say whose idea the hearing was. “This is something that’s very dear to my heart, and being chairman of police and fire, it gives me an opportunity to educate the community and see what we can do to make our streets safer on a day to day basis, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

So, he was asked, was it your idea?

“Well, I’m the chairman of police and fire, and I’m moving forward with an agenda that I think is going to make the streets safer.”

Did the idea come from the Daley administration?

“As I’m being briefed, and as I’m getting familiar with the whole committee, I’m going to be hosting and having hearings and bringing things to the forefront that are important to the people of the city of Chicago.”

Who exactly is briefing you?

“As the new chairman, you get briefed from the police department and the law department and the different entities, and again I have the charge as the chairman of bringing these things to the forefront.”

After their testimony, Thomas, Hemenway, and other experts were received off to the side with handshakes from corporation counsel Mara Georges. I approached Hemenway and asked how he’d gotten word of the hearing in time to catch a plane from Boston, and he said he’d been alerted by a local nonprofit. As we walked into the hallway to speak, we were followed by Melissa Stratton, Georges’s spokeswoman.

So I asked her if the law department had played any role in rounding up speakers for the hearing. She said no.

Beale said he hadn’t invited anyone to the hearing either. “I think what we saw today was the importance and the passion that the people have that are pushing their legislators to have common-sense gun legislation,” he said. “We posted the hearing and people asked if they could come and testify. We had people coming from California and we had people coming from Boston, so again, if people hear it outside the city of Chicago, I think everyone would have heard about it.”

But Richard Pearson hadn’t heard about it. Pearson is executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, which is one of the parties that’s challenged the gun ban. “I didn’t know anything about the meeting, but I don’t get invited to those things,” he said when I called him Friday afternoon.

Pearson has his agenda, of course, and I’m among those deeply skeptical of it. But that doesn’t mean everything he says is wrong. “They don’t want to address the problem of a 49 percent dropout rate or of deteriorating families and neighborhoods,” he said. “They just want to blame somebody else.” The city’s anti-gun rhetoric, he argues, “is smoke.”

Lyle said plans for the hearing had been in the works for some time and made the same argument Beale had: “Obviously if people came here from out of town, it wasn’t arranged that quickly.”

But then she added, “I want to believe they [the city] didn’t spend money to fly people out here.”

FREDDRENNA LYLE
  • SAM ADAMS
  • FREDDRENNA LYLE

When I asked her if the gun ban is really doing anything about violence, she sighed. Lyle’s ward has been the site of some of the most horrifying gun incidents of the last few months, including the killing of a police officer in May. She actually agreed with much of what Pearson argued—that the murders are the result of a “perfect storm” of things, including gang disputes, a crumbling economy, high dropout rates, family instability, and government welfare policies.

“People are looking for short answers but there is no short answer,” she said. “So in the short run all we can do is talk to people about how to stay safe, and one way is to try to keep guns off the street.”

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