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Legality of governor’s assault weapons ban uncertain

August 06, 2012 at 05:50 AM

The Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn has taken a dramatic and headline-grabbing step in proposing a ban on assault-style weapons after the horrifying massacre of movie fans at a Colorado theater. But his proposal faces plenty of big hurdles as well as questions about whether it would really do much to reduce crime.

Here’s a closer look at the details:

Q: What is Quinn proposing?

A: He wants to ban the sale of new assault-style weapons and ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, as well as .50-caliber rifles and certain quick-firing shotguns. It would be a felony to possess them illegally.

“Assault weapon” is a slippery term, but Quinn is basically going after the civilian equivalents of rifles like the AK-47 or M-16. These versions are not fully automatic like their military siblings; they fire once with each pull of the trigger. But that still lets a shooter spray bullets quickly, especially when stocked with magazines that carry dozens of rounds each.

People who already own an assault weapon or high-capacity magazine would be allowed to keep them but not sell them to anyone else. And they would have to register with the state.

Q: Would banning assault weapons in Illinois reduce crime?

A: That’s a key question, but nobody really knows the answer.

A 2003 study of the national ban from 1994 to 2004 found the use of assault weapons dropped to varying degrees around the country, but the drop was offset by increased use of other guns that had been equipped with big magazines. If the ban was renewed, the study found, the effects on gun violence “are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”

A state ban might be even less effective because guns could be brought in from other states.

“It becomes more difficult on a state-by-state basis. You have this flow of illegal weapons,” said Christopher Koper, an associate professor at George Mason University and co-author of that study on the national ban.

But experts caution against drawing firm conclusions about the effectiveness of the federal ban or what impact a ban would have today.

Q: How often are assault weapons used in crimes?

A: Not very. When the national ban was imposed, experts believed assault weapons accounted for between 2 percent and 8 percent of all gun crimes.

Statistics on their current use are extremely hard to find, but a gun-control group called the Violence Policy Center searched news reports for crimes involving assault weapons from March 2005 to March 2007. It found reports of 235 incidents, more than one-quarter of which involved police and often included shots fired at the officers. Eleven assault-weapon incidents were found in Illinois.

Quinn acknowledged it’s not clear just how many assault weapons are out there or how often they’re used in crimes.

Tim McCarthy, chief of police in Orland Park, agreed there’s no firm data but said he’s “pretty certain” assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are being used more often.

Banning them “will help reduce violence against our residents. It will help reduce violence against our police,” McCarthy said at the governor’s announcement.

Q: Is Quinn’s action constitutional?

A: Quinn put his proposal in legislative form through an amendatory veto. At least one Illinois Supreme Court ruling suggests he may have gone too far.

An Illinois governor has the power to veto legislation, suggest changes and send it back to lawmakers for further action. Back in 1972, the court ruled that the governor’s veto power, while hard to define, was not limitless.

“It can be said with certainty, however, that the substitution of complete new bills ... is not authorized by the constitution,” the Supreme Court said.

That’s exactly what Quinn did last week. He took a piece of legislation about the sale of ammunition, deleted all of its substance and substituted a new bill banning assault weapons.

The Democratic governor sees the legal landscape differently.

“This issue has been considered by the Supreme Court on several occasions and they’ve been, I think, very clear that the governor has this power,” he said, also noting that voters considered a constitutional amendment to limit the veto power and they rejected it.

Q: Do lawmakers have to vote on his proposal?

A: No. The sponsor of the original bill, Sen. David Luechtefeld, is a firm opponent of gun control. He calls Quinn’s veto a slap in the face to gun owners and makes it clear he will try to kill it.

The Okawville Republican could call for a vote on restoring the original language or he could just drop the whole issue and let the bill die. It’s hard to imagine anything that could convince him to accept the governor’s ban and let the Senate vote on it.

Even if the measure somehow got out of the Senate, it would still face a tough test in the House, where a committee reviews amendatory vetoes and shelves any that are deemed to exceed the governor’s authority. Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, has not been shy about saying “no” to governors.

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