When a crowd of gang members swarmed the yard of his Austin home last year, Pheyon Thomas didn’t have a handgun to fight back. He didn’t dare wait around for the police, he said; his teenage daughter’s safety was at stake.
So Thomas protected his family the only way he knew how – by bluffing.
“I faked a lot of it,” Thomas said. “Thank God, it started raining.”
That incident brought Thomas, along with dozens of other residents, to a town hall meeting last week on “concealed-carry” legislation, which would allow Illinois citizens to carry concealed, loaded handguns in public.
While exact laws vary nationwide, Illinois is now the only state with no law allowing everyday citizens to carry concealed weapons. Wisconsin – which until recently sided with Illinois in prohibiting concealed-carry – recently passed a law allowing the practice. It will take effect Nov. 1.
Thursday’s event brought out fiery debate from residents, many of whom had lost loved ones to gunfire, and from a panel that included a victim of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, one of the plaintiffs of the landmark McDonald v. Chicago case, and other handgun advocates and opponents.
Frequently drawing on the Second Amendment, concealed-carry proponents argued that citizens should be allowed to carry guns to defend themselves from armed criminals.
“If I could push a button and every firearm on this earth would disappear, that would be fine,” said gun-rights advocate David Lemieuz, a 26-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. “Last thing I checked, that button doesn’t exist … The lambs have to stop begging the wolves to behave.”
Colleen Lawson, a plaintiff in McDonald v. Chicago, said she has supported concealed-carry since her three children were attacked in gun incidents.
“I don’t want them to end up in a situation like (fellow panelist, Virginia Tech shooting victim) Garrett (Evans), where he’s cowering and waiting for someone else to come save him,” Lawson said, eliciting murmurs from some gun-control advocates in the audience.
Opponents, on the other hand, argued that legalized concealed-carry would put more guns in the hands of criminals, leading to further violence on the streets and in-home accidents and youth suicides.
Chicago Police Chief Ernest Brown, attending on behalf of Supt. Garry McCarthy, said concealed handguns would pose a serious danger to police officers and the public.
“The only way we can ever hope to reduce the amount of violence is to reduce the number of handguns,” Brown said. He added that 2010 was Chicago’s least violent year since 1965, with 435 reported homicides. Eighty-eight percent of those were related to firearms, Brown said.
Gun-control advocate Tom VandenBerk, who lost a son to gun violence, blamed gun manufacturers’ lobbying for loose firearms laws, stating their actions are putting weapons into the hands of criminals.
“Whether we’re the last state or not, I think we should be proud of that fact,” he said. “We have a national epidemic here.”
Concealed-carry legislation is not new in Springfield. A bill to legalize concealed weapons was proposed in the Illinois House in January, but was shot down in May and sent back to committee after Gov. Pat Quinn threatened to veto it.
While most of the audience members appeared to support concealed-carry, many appeared to be affiliated with special interest groups. The majority of attendees did not live within Ford’s 8th District, according to an informal show of hands at Ford’s request.
Rev. Michael Pfleger, an ardent gun-control advocate, also attended but did not speak publicly. Pfleger arrived with a group of parishioners but denied Ford’s invitation to take a seat at the panel.
(Here’s what our partners at the Austin Weekly News reported on last week’s event.)