Lawmakers have a chance to reduce gun violence. Get the bill right.

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Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart holds up high capacity ammunition magazines as he testifies in support of the state’s proposed assault weapon ban to the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Thomas Vanden Berk, the founder of the Gun Violence Prevention PAC, remembers the days when swarms of gun-rights supporters would pack the Illinois Capitol’s gallery whenever he testified about gun safety.

But when the Legislature held hearings on a new gun safety bill this month, it was the other way around. The gallery was full of people who want action to stop gun violence, he said.

That’s all the more reason to make sure the bill is correctly worded when it goes up for a vote, probably during the Legislature’s lame duck session between Jan. 4 and Jan. 11. Right now, the bill, which has been introduced in the Illinois House, is not ready for prime time.

The state Senate is working on its own bill, which we’re told will be ready between Christmas and New Year’s Day. A final package negotiated between the two chambers must be done wisely and without delay. If the bill is kicked over to the Legislature’s spring session and not enacted for several months, victims of gun violence will die needlessly.

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Of all the key measures included in the bill, the most important is probably a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, which allow a shooter to keep firing for a longer period without stopping to reload. When combined with illegal devices that essentially convert firearms into machine guns that can keep firing with just one pull of the trigger, high-capacity magazines are especially deadly. Johns Hopkins University research found laws that ban high-capacity magazines are associated with a 49% lower rate of fatal mass shootings. If lawmakers get high-capacity magazines out of the hands of criminals, more people will live.

Getting high-capacity magazines out of the hands of criminals will not only reduce the number of mass shootings in which many people are killed or injured, but it would also reduce the number of victims in smaller-scale shootings. Because powerful firearms can be hard to control, shooters often don’t hit anyone with their first bullets. It’s only because they can fire off a stream of bullets, even with a 9 mm pistol equipped with a high-capacity magazine, that victims are hit. Even in cases with just a few victims, police often find numerous spent casings on the scene.

But the House bill needs to do a better job of addressing the dangers of high-capacity magazines. For example, it would make all high-capacity magazines illegal the minute the bill is enacted into law. Does Illinois really want to make criminals of people who legally bought the magazines in the past and may not even have heard about a new law?

There are other approaches. Delaware combined a ban on the manufacture, sale, purchase, receipt, transfer or possession of large-capacity magazines with a buy-back program. Rhode Island allowed owners 180 days to get rid of high-capacity magazines or adjust them so their maximum capacity is 10 rounds. Voters in Oregon passed a referendum on Nov. 8 that banned the future sale of high-capacity magazines, but allowed people who already own them to keep them on their property or at areas where they are specifically allowed, such as a rifle range.

Among other provisions that should be in the final bill are banning the manufacture and sale of assault weapons in Illinois and requiring existing assault weapons in the state to be registered. There are too many such weapons in the wrong hands now. At a hearing on Tuesday, Elena Gottreich, deputy mayor for public safety for Chicago, testified that 1,025 assault weapons were seized in the city last year and as of Tuesday, 1,156 were seized this year.

Lawmakers must be careful how they define assault weapons. It’s a complicated process, full of technical details. And once new rules are in place, gun manufacturers will start working on designing weapons that still act like assault weapons while staying just inside the law.

For years, people unfortunately felt the only answer to the widespread possession of powerful guns by criminals was to keep an eye out for escape exits when they were in public places. Now, the pendulum is swinging the other way, and people are coming to realize the right reforms can make everyone safer.

The Legislature should make sure those reforms are enacted into law.

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December 21, 2022 at 08:07PM

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