CAPITOL RECAP: Committee begins hearings on high-powered weapon ban

CAPITOL RECAP: Committee begins hearings on high-powered weapon ban

By CAPITOL NEWS ILLINOIS

SPRINGFIELD – A legislative committee on Thursday, Dec. 15, heard more witnesses call for a ban on high-power, semi-automatic rifles and large-capacity magazines, but some experts said that alone won’t solve the problem of violent crime in Illinois.

During its second hearing on a proposed assault weapon ban, an Illinois House committee, meeting in Chicago, heard from several officials who said public investment in marginalized communities and community-based programs that aim to stop cycles of violence also are needed.

“Unfortunately, community-based providers serving at-risk youth and emerging adults have lacked substantial investments for decades. Yet these programs have proven to be impactful and effective,” Delrice Adams, executive director of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, told the panel.

Adams spoke during a House Judiciary-Criminal Committee hearing on House Bill 5855, sponsored by Rep. Bob Morgan, D-Deerfield. It would ban the sale and possession of “assault weapons,” .50 caliber rifles, .50 caliber cartridges and high-capacity magazines. The bill provides a long list of firearms, both rifles and pistols, that would fall under the definition of “assault weapons.”

And starting 300 days after the bill takes effect, it would make it illegal to possess such a weapon or ammunition unless it is registered with the Illinois State Police.

Kim Smith, director of programs at the University of Chicago Crime Lab, called gun violence a “public health crisis” in the United States, noting that its homicide rate is at least 7.5 times that of other industrialized nations and that guns account for 79 percent of those homicides.

Smith said other actions are needed as well, including investments in social service programs that help people “de-escalate stressful situations before they lead to violence.”

One of the programs recently put into place in Illinois that aims to make those investments is the 2021 Reimagine Public Safety Act, administered by the Office of Firearm Violence Prevention within the Illinois Department of Human Services, which provides grants to organizations for violence prevention programs in 42 target communities both within and outside Chicago that have seen the highest rates of gun violence and homicides.

Chris Patterson, the assistant secretary who oversees that office, said some of the communities receiving those grants are already seeing dramatic declines in violent crime. But he argued that banning assault weapons is still a necessary step.

The panel also heard from people directly affected by gun violence, including Maria Pike, a volunteer with the group Moms Demand Action, whose 24-year-old son was shot and killed in 2012 in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, and Marsha Lee, whose son was killed in 2008 in Harvey, Illinois.

“It’s been 14 years since my son has been killed and we still are here doing the same work, having the same conversation,” she said.

But the committee also heard from opponents of the bill, including Andrew Guadarrama, a 26-year-old Chicago resident who said the proposed law could actually endanger public safety because many residents, including those in high-crime neighborhoods, cannot rely on the police to protect them.

* * *

MONDAY HEARING: The committee also heard testimony on Monday, Dec. 12. Victims and survivors of multiple mass shootings urged lawmakers to pass the ban on assault weapons, arguing that communities throughout Illinois have felt the pain of deadly mass shootings.

“I was shot multiple times on the Fourth of July in Highland Park,” Lauren Bennett said during a legislative committee meeting in Chicago.

She described the “maelstrom” of bullets that tore through a crowd during an Independence Day parade this year.

“As a gunshot survivor, a mom and a citizen of Illinois, I sit before you today to provide my support for the proposal to provide additional protections to communities as it relates to assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and raising the age of gun purchases,” she said. “Something has to change.”

Rep. Bob Morgan, D-Deerfield, whose district includes Highland Park, also advanced a resolution at the committee.

“In less than one minute, less than a minute, the assailant shot 83 bullets into the crowd, killing seven and injuring dozens of my neighbors and constituents, people that lived in the district, people who did not,” Morgan said, quoting in part from the resolution he has sponsored mourning those who died in the shooting.

But many other people came to the hearing to remind lawmakers that Highland Park – an upscale, predominantly white suburb north of Chicago – is not the only community in Illinois to experience a mass shooting and that Black and brown communities are far more likely to be the scenes of such violence.

“On July 4 of this year, when the tragedy occurred in Highland Park, my heart went out to them. …I continue to pray for them,” said Jaquie Algee, a South Side resident who lost her only son in a different shooting. “But at the same token, in Black communities around the city and state, there were 10 – in this city – 10 Black kids that were shot and killed that day. There were 62 that were shot and injured.”

“We don’t have people rushing to give us therapy and counselors and people who will work with our children and our communities, and people to help to recover from this pain,” she added. “That doesn’t happen for us. And that’s a shame.”

* * *

SUPREME COURT HISTORY: The Illinois Supreme Court made history last week when two newly seated members gave the bench a 5-2 majority of woman judges.

Justices Elizabeth Rochford and Mary Kay O’Brien were sworn in Monday, Dec. 5. The two Democrats were both elected to the high court in November. Justice Joy V. Cunningham, who was appointed to replace retired Justice Anne M. Burke, was sworn in on Dec. 1.

The new justices join Lisa Holder White, who was sworn in as the court’s first Black woman justice on July 7. Cunningham became the second, bringing the number of Black justices on the Supreme Court to three, also a high-water mark for the institution.

The historic court will be led by Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis, who officially assumed that title in October, following Burke and becoming the fourth woman chief in the court’s history.

She’s been on the court since 2010 and ascended to the top spot by the court’s standard process, which gives the gavel to longest-tenured justice who hasn’t yet held it.

She’ll preside over a court on which four of its seven members have been seated for less than six months.

“In my life story, I am not a trailblazer. I am not Mary Ann McMorrow, who was the first woman on our court,” Theis said in an interview with Capitol News Illinois.

McMorrow was first elected to the court in 1992.

Diversity on the bench, Theis said, is both enriching to deliberations and important from a symbolism standpoint.

“It wasn’t that long ago when Charles Freeman was the first African American on this court. He joined the court in 1990,” Theis said. “But he was the only African American up until 2018 and then Scott Neville joined this court.”

Neville remained the only Black justice until he was joined this year by Holder White and Cunningham.

“Suddenly, we’re now going to have three people (on this court) that are people of color,” Theis said. “It says something about our state and something about our court that we’ve evolved to such a place that we can have that diversity.”

While Theis said she’s invigorated by the new court and the experiences and worldviews its new members will bring to the bench, she described the challenges of the court’s turnover as “innumerable.”

There’s also another considerable shift on the court – its 4-3 Democratic majority of recent years has grown to 5-2.

Theis, however, said partisanship has no place on the high court.

“There is no partisanship, unless you want to say sports partisanship,” she said.

* * *

PENSION FUNDING: Illinois’ unfunded pension liability grew by $9.8 billion, or 7.5 percent, in the fiscal year that ended June 30, due in large part to market losses in a volatile economy.

The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability reported Thursday that the total unfunded liability in the state’s five pension funds reached a total of $139.7 billion, leaving them with a funded ratio of just 44.1 percent.

Those numbers are based on an annual report from the state actuary, who reviews the preliminary financial data submitted by each of the five funds.

The funded ratio reflects the difference in the market value of the funds’ assets and the amount of money the funds would need to immediately pay all members the full amounts of benefits they are owed for the rest of time.

Although that’s an important measure of the systems’ long-term financial health, it does not reflect their current ability to pay out benefits that are owed. All five of the pension funds continue to pay out benefits to eligible retirees on a timely basis.

All told, the five pension funds had combined liabilities of $248.8 billion June 30 and total assets of $109.1 billion.

Pension systems generally receive funding from three sources – employee contributions; employer contributions; and returns on investments. The large unfunded liability in Illinois’ pension funds is the result of the state failing for decades to make adequate contributions as the employer.

In 1994, then-Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, pushed through legislation whereby the state would gradually increase its contributions over the next 50 years until the funding ratio would reach 90 percent by 2045, a plan commonly referred to as the “Edgar Ramp.”

But the state has not always met its targets under that plan.

Since taking office in 2019, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker has included full funding at the statutorily required levels in each of his budgets, and over the past two fiscal years authorized an additional $500 million above what was required by law, bringing the total amount paid in to just under $11 billion, including $9.9 billion from the General Revenue Fund.

According to those reports, COGFA said, preliminary estimates show the required contributions for the upcoming fiscal year will total $10.9 billion, including $9.8 billion from general revenues.

Even that, however, would be far short of what it would take to cover the actual costs that the funds will accrue during the year. The “actuarily determined contributions” for the five funds – the amount the state would be obligated to pay, even if the systems were 100-percent funded – would be $15.4 billion.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, as well as hundreds of radio and TV stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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