A large crowd loaded into Oak Park Village Hall last week to talk gun regulations. Despite a few grumbles from the packed council chambers, attendees mostly kept their emotions holstered.
The Oak Park Board of Health, a citizen advisory panel to the village board, held the forum, Jan. 24, to gather input on how the community should regulate guns in the future. The forum followed in the wake of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that struck down Oak Park's decades-long handgun ban, in addition to the recent opening of a gun store on Roosevelt Road.
Village Manager Tom Barwin, himself a former police officer, kicked off the discussion, urging speakers not to turn the forum into a shouting match over the right to bear arms. Rather, he wanted ideas on how Oak Park should react to the 2010 ruling.
"It's quite clear that firearm violence, accidents and crimes are very costly to our society in myriad ways," Barwin said. "Medical responses, rehabilitation from debilitating injury, loss of life, police and court costs, incarceration, all add up to monumental costs. From the board's perspective, firearm safety is clearly an important public health issue."
Twenty-two people spoke at Tuesday night's forum, about 15 of whom seemed to lean toward the gun-rights, anti-regulation side. Mike Weisman, vice president of the Illinois State Rifle Association and one of two non-Oak Park residents to speak, called it "contrived" to treat guns as a public health matter.
He pointed to the fact that Oak Park crime was the lowest it's been in 39 years in 2011, the first full year without the handgun ban since the 1980s. He said criminals are the problem, not legal gun owners.
"This issue is contrived and it's theater," Weisman said. "It's a need to do something because they lost the handgun ban. ... There's crime and there's bloodshed and there's heartache, and it doesn't come from honest, law-abiding people that want a chance to defend themselves."
Doug Hills, himself a gun owner, said he agrees that Oak Park should try to keep its streets safe, but gun regulations would be "very difficult to swallow." He and other gun owners said classes on gun use would be a better way to keep people safe, though it wouldn't benefit a knowledgeable firearm owner like himself, he added.
"It's about how do we protect our freedom as Americans to protect ourselves in our own homes, and what you guys come up with, I don't think, is really going to make us any more safe," Hills said.
On the other side, Alice Norris said Oak Park needs some type of guidelines to regulate guns. Her 14-year-old daughter was struck by a bullet in a drive-by shooting and tallied tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills before eventually dying.
"The blood is crying out from the ground for us to do something about it," Norris said. "Not you, not me, but all of us, and you have a responsibility. Remember that you work for society. You're supposed to take care of us. You're supposed to be here for us and we're supposed to be safe. Didn't my daughter have a right to live?"
Reshma Desai said Oak Park should require owners to store guns separately from ammunition, and to keep them locked up. Local police could do "spot checks" at homes and issue fines to make sure people are complying, she said, which elicited grumbles from the mostly pro-gun crowd.
She also emphasized the need for educating children about the dangers of gun use, similar to how Oak Park treats drugs and alcohol. Having a gun in the home increases the chance of someone committing suicide, Desai said, and the village needs to pay special attention to people with mental health problems.
"If we're going to have guns in Oak Park, which it sounds like we already do, then we need to have some very simple ways of educating children on what to do when they see a gun," Desai said.
The health board is expected to compile the input from the forum to present to the village board in the coming months, according to Margaret Provost-Fyfe, head of the health department.
Back in 2010, the health board came up with a list of possible ways that Oak Park could respond in the event that the ban was overturned. Ideas included starting a handgun registry, holding safety courses and requiring owners to securely store their handguns.
Oak Park may explore zoning regulations related to gun stores, too, an idea suggested by a couple of attendees who are upset that a gun store just opened a few blocks from Irving Elementary School.