Oak Park Police Chief Shatonya Johnson and Former Oak Park village attorney Ray Heise | Photo by Lois Love

The Fourth of July remains one of the deadliest days for gun violence in the United States, but the Village of Oak Park took actions the day after the nation celebrated its independence to prevent firearms from falling into the wrong hands. The village board unanimously passed a two-part ordinance requiring safe storage of firearms and allowing the village to conduct gun buybacks. 

“We should be shouting from the rooftops about how big a deal this is,” said Trustee Brian Straw. “This is significant action in gun violence prevention in our community.”

The first half of the ordinance is rather simple: all firearms in a person’s home must be safely secured by a locking device. Any failure to do so leaves the gun owner at risk of liability in a court of law for any potential injuries caused by the unsecured firearm or firearms. However the ordinance does not apply to instances of self-defense. This section was hardly discussed by the village board at its July 5 meeting, as all members were supportive.

The second half of the ordinance is also rather simple – at least in theory. Gun buybacks are intended to reduce the numbers of firearms within a community by compensating individuals who turn them over to authorities.

Allowing the police department this ability was also supported by the board and Police Chief Shatonya Johnson, but whether to require identification or permit anonymity for those who surrender firearms led to a more philosophical discussion. 

Is it better to know where a gun came from in case it is connected to a past crime or is it better to just take the gun no questions asked, for fear that requiring someone’s name may dissuade them from safely disposing of the firearm?

Anonymity ultimately won out and the identification requirement was stricken from the ordinance, but that central question was the basis of the entire discussion around the new village law. 

Straw argued requiring identification could be the reason why a gun is not turned in, as an individual could fear legal recourse for a crime connected to that firearm. That person could instead dump the gun in the trash or an alley, where it could be picked up by an unsuspecting person. 

The capacity to use identification to trace a surrendered gun found to be used in a criminal offense to an actual person was Johnson’s reason for recommending the identification requirement.

“We have a public health crisis with gun violence,” Johnson said. “If there’s an opportunity to get someone off the street that is responsible for gun violence, we should not eliminate that possibility.”

Not requiring identification makes it harder to directly trace where a gun came from if that weapon is found to have been directly linked to a crime or if the firearm was reported stolen, according to Johnson. 

“A gun without any association to it is like not having it at all,” she said.

Tracing a firearm to a particular person can close loops in an investigation, which the chief argued provides a resolution for victims and holds individuals answerable to crimes. 

“That’s the only stance that I have: accountability and providing victims with closure,” said Johnson.

Her position on the issue won her the support of Trustee Lucia Robinson, the latter of whom spoke of her personal experience of having an unsolved gun-related tragedy in her family.

“To have an unsolved death in a family is not something we can overlook,” Robinson said.

Several municipalities have chosen not to require identification in gun surrender or buyback programs, including Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and the city of Winston-Salem in North Carolina. 

Oak Park police already had the ability to accept firearms prior to the ordinance, with 17 firearms handed in over the past year. Individuals wishing to surrender a gun could do so at the police station, where an officer would file a report. If surrenderers did not wish to provide identification, police would simply leave that part of the report blank. 

Not requiring ID prevents someone from having to explain the unexplainable, such as a parent finding a gun in their teenager’s bedroom without knowing where it came from or how it got there. It could also prevent deaths by suicide.

“They just want the gun out of that person’s hand,” said Trustee Chibuike Enyia, who supported making identification optional.

Despite not everyone on the board reaching unanimity regarding identification, all believed the ordinance was generally too worthwhile to vote against entirely. 

“I do think this is an important step and we should go forward with it in whatever shape it takes,” said Trustee Ravi Parakkat.

Two votes were taken on the ordinance – the first to strike the identification requirement, which Robinson and Parakkat voted against and the second to pass the ordinance, which all board members voted unanimously to do.

Oak Park manager, police chief join gun safety marchers

As the annual July 4th parade launched in Oak Park last week, local appointed village government leaders joined the blue-shirted Gun Responsibility Advocates and the red-shirts of Moms Demand Action along Ridgeland Avenue. The groups held signs aloft reading, “Protect Children, Not Guns” and “Imagine a World Without Gun Violence,” reinforced by bull-horned calls for “No More Silence, End Gun Violence,” punctuated by, “Listen to your Mom.” 

This coalition, which also includes the First United Church of Oak Park’s Social Justice in Action Committee, has been marching each July 4th since 2014, accompanied by a succession of Oak Park police chiefs — Rick Tanksley, Tony Ambrose, LaDon Reynolds, and now Shatonya Johnson. The parade was joined this year by Village Manager Kevin Jackson and his family, showing support for gun safety measures.

Johnson and Jackson diligently worked the crowds with their bags of candy. The parade-long applause and cheers from the crowd indicated popular approval for everything from Universal Background Checks to safe gun storage at home and in vehicles. 

–Ken Trainor

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