First reported 6/28/2010 9:35 a.m.
The Village of Oak Park has fired off round after round trying to defend its more than 26-year-old handgun ban, but it appears the chamber is finally empty.
Officials are figuring out how to respond after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 margin Monday that the Second Amendment extends to and overrides local and state restrictions on gun ownership.
The village and its legal counsel will set about studying the 200-page ruling, and dissents, from the Supreme Court and figuring out how to “protect the public health and safety” in a reality where Oak Park no longer has a handgun ban, Village Attorney Ray Heise said.
The Oak Park Board of Health issued a report earlier this month in anticipation of the court’s decision. Some ideas include starting a handgun registry, safety courses and requiring owners to securely store their handguns.
After Oak Park attorney James Piszczor was shot and killed in a Chicago courtroom in 1983, the village started fighting for its own ban on handguns. The village board narrowly passed the ordinance in April 1984. Piszczor’s best friend, Oak Parker Chris Walsh, helped lead the charge for the new law. He slammed the Supreme Court’s decision on Monday.
“I find it galling that a court which itself chooses to ban handguns from its courtroom in order to protect the personal safety of its Justices says it’s unconstitutional for Oak Parkers to make the same choice to protect themselves and their families,” Walsh, 61, said in a statement issued shortly after the ruling.
On the other side, Oak Parker David Schweig – a lifetime member of the NRA, who fought the village’s handgun ban in the 1980s as part of the “Oak Park Freedom Committee”- applauded the decision.
“The Supreme Court today reached a decision that was a true blessing for liberty,” said Schweig.
What to do next?
Monday’s ruling follows from a June 2008 Supreme Court ruling, striking down Washington D.C.’s gun ban. That case addressed federal laws, but shortly after, the National Rifle Association filed suit seeking to overturn local handgun bans in Oak Park and Chicago, along with Wilmette, Morton Grove, Winnetka and Evanston.
All other Illinois communities killed their bans in the wake of the lawsuit, while Chicago and Oak Park banded together with the help of pro bono attorneys to fight the case of Otis McDonald, et al., v. the City of Chicago, et al (Oak Park).
A report in the New York Times said the “practical effect” of the ruling is “unclear.” But Heise, who as village attorney drafted Oak Park’s handgun ban in the 1980s, said Monday that the decision means Oak Park will eventually have to rescind its ban on the possession of handguns in homes.
“I don’t think there’s flexibility in that regard,” he said.
Heise believes Monday will mark the start of a years-long process as local governments try to find ways to control handguns while operating around the ruling.
The health board’s June 1 report offered some ideas that D.C. implemented after its ban was nullified, including a handgun registry, handgun safety courses at area shooting ranges, and requiring secure storage of guns that are in homes with children.
Village President David Pope said Monday that the court’s decision “wasn’t terribly surprising” and that the village board would be waiting for Oak Park’s legal counsel to digest the ruling before deciding how to respond. He echoed that Oak Park could look to D.C. and Chicago for guidance.
Pope questioned why easily concealed handguns are needed for self defense in the village, when Oak Park residents can already legally use rifles or other “long guns” to protect their homes.
“What our ordinance is aimed at is regulating the extent to which a free flow of easily concealed handguns can come into our community, and place at risk our police officers, our kids, our residents, and the thousands of guests and visitors who come to Oak Park,” Pope said.
Village Manager Tom Barwin urged the NRA to “step up” and join with communities to keep handguns from causing any unintended consequences in Oak Park and other places.
Schweig, 74, said that if Oak Park wants to “perpetuate an ordinance that everybody else has thrown out,” the village should form a volunteer commission with people on both sides of the issue to study the future of guns here. He volunteered to help lead such a commission if it was formed.
Walsh agreed with such an idea.
“We may want to wait till all the legal dust, so to speak, from the recent decision has settled, but the idea of having some kind of committee to review the decision makes sense to me,” he said by phone Monday. “David and I agree on something for a change.”
Did a handgun ban do anything?
Opponents on either side of the handgun issue may agree that they should talk, but not on whether Oak Park’s ban has had any tangible impact over the past quarter of a century. Anti-gunners point to a decreasing crime rate in the village over the years as exhibit A of the law’s success, while pistol protectors say any correlation is suspect at best.
Oak Parker Morrie Seeskin – an attorney and resident of almost 30 years, who was on the 12-member Oak Park Citizens for Handgun Control steering committee that asked the village board to adopt a ban in 1984 – believes the law has worked. Opponents of the ban argued that crime would increase here, as criminals would converge on an unarmed populace.
“Well, if you look at the crime statistics, since the ban has gone into effect, that hasn’t happened; crime has gone down,” he said. “So, the notion that we have to have handguns in our home, otherwise we’re going to be overrun by the criminals, doesn’t hold much water, as far as I’m concerned.”
Walsh, who is chairman of the Oak Park Citizens Committee for Handgun Control, claims that data covering 10 years before the ban was enacted in 1984 shows that villagers with handguns were more likely to kill themselves or loved ones than to defend their homes. Crime statistics have dropped since then, Walsh said.
“The court’s decision puts that progress and Oak Park lives at risk for no constitutionally sound reason and hands the gun lobby a victory that it could not win at the ballot box in Oak Park’s 1985 referendum on the ban,” Walsh said in his statement.
Officials had hoped that the 1985 voter referendum to uphold the ban – which won with a vote total of 54 percent – would have helped Oak Park’s ban stand the court’s test.
Schweig disputed any notion that the ban has decreased crime, saying no statistics prove that point. He believes the ordinance, like Oak Park’s declaration as a nuclear-free zone, is more symbolic than a necessary crime-fighting tool.
“If this ordinance actually did something, prove it; they have no evidence” he said. “There is no evidence that this is anything other than a feel-good ordinance on the part of Oak Park.”
Heise, who’s been with Oak Park since 1975, believes the law is more than symbolic, even if the village has no hard-line numbers to prove its success.
“I can certainly tell you that the village has consistently prosecuted the violation of this ordinance since its inception, and that our ultimate goal has always been the confiscation and destruction of the weapon, and we have consistently met that goal,” he said.
Front page from the issue of the Journal after the 1985 vote. Right and below, campaign ads for and against the ban from the previous week’s paper.