Editorial: Does lax enforcement of Illinois gun legislation violate victims’ civil rights? | Nation

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As Illinois Democrats continue to seek a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines after the Highland Park massacre on July 4, critics of gun safety laws voice a familiar rebuttal:

Why pass new gun laws, opponents argue, when so many existing laws aren’t being enforced?

That’s a good question, but it dodges another, yet more obvious question: Why aren’t the existing laws being enforced?

That’s the question properly raised in a lawsuit filed by parents, including Shanice Mathews, a West Side mother of four. She’s the named plaintiff in Mathews v. State of Illinois, a suit filed by her and other parents on behalf of their children and others in a proposed class of Black children who the parents say have been traumatized by living in neighborhoods plagued by high gun violence.

The defendants are the state of Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois State Police.

The lawsuit seeks no monetary damages. Instead, it seeks to have the predominantly Black populations in 10 high-crime neighborhoods recognized as a legal class and requires the defendants to properly enforce the state’s Firearm Dealer Licensing Act, the Firearm Owners Identification Card Act and the Illinois Gun Trafficking Information Act.

The state has taken ample political fire in the past for lax enforcement of state gun safety laws and regulations, particularly in communities that need enforcement the most. A 2019 Tribune investigation revealed, for example, that as many as 30,000 guns may still be in the possession of Illinois residents deemed too dangerous to have them.

As we have argued before, lax FOID enforcement reemerged tragically as an issue after accused mass killer Robert “Bobby” Crimo III was charged with fatally shooting seven people and injuring more than 30 at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park.

Crimo, it turned out, had been deemed a “clear and present danger” in 2019 by Highland Park police after he made threats to others, had more than a dozen knives in his bedroom closet and allegedly had attempted suicide. Yet, by this summer his earlier troubles were cleared from state records, which enabled him to receive a FOID card — which he used to purchase the semi-automatic rifle that prosecutors say he employed in the Independence Day attack.

The shooting reopened a long-buzzing hornet’s nest of questions about Illinois gun laws and their enforcement rules that continue to be excessively complicated, full of loopholes and bloated with bureaucratic details.

Mathew’s suit essentially calls for the governor and police to do their duty and fill the gaps in gun law enforcement that have caused some communities to pay an especially high price.

Suing the state for providing uneven gun law enforcement may sound like an outlandish idea. But considering the state’s sad record of enforcing gun owner regulations, the attention is hardly undeserved.

Does lax law enforcement in high-crime neighborhoods violate the civil rights of gun crime victims?

That question, a central issue in the civil rights lawsuit, may sound like a bit of a stretch. Indeed, a similar approach by a group led by Chicago’s the Rev. Michael Pfleger in 2015 famously failed in its attempt to use an Illinois civil rights law to force three Chicago suburbs — Lincolnwood, Lyons and Riverdale — to adopt more stringent rules for the gun shops in their jurisdictions that had become major sources of weapons used in Chicago crimes. Months later, a Cook County judge dismissed the complaint.

But the Mathews suit, originally filed in 2018, survived a crucial test the next year when U.S. District Judge Joan B. Gottschall allowed the case to go forward despite objections by the defendants.

Among other claims, the plaintiffs allege that the state is infringing upon their children’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by allowing trauma induced by gun violence to impede equal access to educational success.

Noting the city’s horrendous violence surge that has run higher than 2,000 shootings per year in recent years, Tom Geoghegan, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, argued to us that “the epidemic of violence is also destroying the surviving children emotionally, psychologically, in the most profound ways.”

That’s understandable, considering the vast numbers of children and adults who have had to go to bed with constant bursts of nocturnal gunfire in less fortunate neighborhoods.

Illinois is known to have some of the toughest gun laws and regulations that the Constitution allows. But if FOID files are not kept up to date and related regulations are not rigorously enforced, the state’s citizens are not adequately protected.

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September 7, 2022 at 07:14AM

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