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Illinois lawmakers push for assault weapons ban after Highland Park parade shooting

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There have been more than 600 mass shootings in the United States this year, and efforts to ban assault weapons have increased. President Biden says he is determined to do so. A handful of states and the District of Columbia do have bans in place. Now Illinois hopes to join them. In the first few days of the new year, state lawmakers will vote on a proposal that Democrats call a top priority in the aftermath of a shooting at a July 4 parade in a Chicago suburb. Alex Degman from member station WBEZ traveled to Highland Park, Ill., and has this report.

ALEX DEGMAN, BYLINE: It's been almost six months since a gunman opened fire here, killing seven and injuring nearly 50. It's still hard for some to believe. Central Avenue is vibrant. Local shops are set up for the holidays with people popping in and out. Trees lining the streets are all adorned with lights. But most businesses here have at least one Highland Park strong sign in their window. People are still in a lot of pain. Illinois State Representative Bob Morgan is among them. He says the killing spree shattered this idyllic community, and he's trying to do something about it.

BOB MORGAN: We had literally just been told, you're stepping off. You're next. We were beginning to march. And my staffer turned to me. She was on the phone with somebody else, and she yelled, gunshots, gunshots.

DEGMAN: The suspect in the Highland Park shooting used an AR-15-style rifle and fired more than 80 rounds into the parade crowd in less than a minute. Months later, Morgan presented a measure that would ban the sale and manufacture of hundreds of weapons, plus magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. The Protect Illinois Communities Act raises the minimum age to get a firearm owner's ID card to 21 unless you're in law enforcement or the military. It also allows law enforcement or family members to petition a court to have someone's guns confiscated for up to a year instead of the current six months. The firearm restraining order is typically called a red flag law elsewhere.

MORGAN: I feel a great deal of responsibility to pass this law because I don't want any other legislator or community to experience what we experienced.

DEGMAN: It's these types of mass shootings in Highland Park and elsewhere that have prompted some change. New York's governor this year signed a ban on semiautomatic weapons, citing the shootings at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. And the U.S. House passed an assault weapons ban on a largely party line vote in July, but the Senate has yet to consider it. There's always been strong opposition from gun rights groups, and the Illinois plan has plenty of opponents.

RICHARD PEARSON: My name is Richard Pearson. I'm executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association.

DEGMAN: Pearson says the AR-15, which would be banned under the measure, is one of the most commonly used guns in the country.

PEARSON: It is the most efficient thing to use to defend yourself. It works better than anything else. So why politicians want to give criminals an advantage, I have no idea. But they seem to want to do that all the time.

DEGMAN: And Pearson calls the proposed bill unconstitutional. He's already gearing up for court challenges should it pass. Democratic Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker says he expected that.

J B PRITZKER: The people who oppose it - that's really all that's left for them - is to take it to court. They want to slow it down. They want to end it if they can. But I believe that this is a constitutional proposal.

DEGMAN: However, Pearson with the State Rifle Association says plenty in the state are against it.

PEARSON: They take hunting seriously. They take firearm ownership seriously. And so this is not going to go away. This is going to be a fight.

DEGMAN: Illinois Democrats enjoy supermajorities in both the House and Senate, and with the governor's support, an assault weapons ban will likely become law. For NPR News, I'm Alex Degman in Springfield, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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