Illustration by Shane Tolentino

On January 10, Illinois Democrats passed the Protect Illinois Communities Act, which bans assault weapons, large ammunition magazines, and modifications that allow guns to shoot automatically.

Lawmakers moved quickly to pass the bill in the wake of last year’s July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park, and survivors of assault weapon shootings came out in support of the ban. Local gun violence prevention advocates have in general celebrated the passage of the law, which is similar to existing bans in eight other states and Washington D.C., while noting it’s just one step in the fight to end gun violence.

Assault weapons are loosely defined as automatic and semi-automatic rifles with large ammunition magazines capable of firing larger bullets at a higher rate and velocity than traditional handguns. Guns that fall under this category, like the AR-15, were originally designed for military combat and have been used more frequently during mass shootings in recent years, including the one in Highland Park.

Les Jenkins, a survivor of gun violence with an assault weapon who works with shooting victims for the Institute of Nonviolence Chicago, said he is “eternally grateful that they passed that [law] because it gives us hope to keep boots on the ground. I would hope to see that the mass shootings that happen in our communities be reduced tremendously.”

His department works hand in hand with street outreach workers from the Institute of Nonviolence who aim to respond within an hour to every shooting and homicide in their coverage area of Austin, West Garfield Park, Back of the Yards, and Brighton Park.

Jenkins ensures a support system for community members that includes counseling, therapy, and workforce development. Over the course of twelve months between 2021 and 2022, the organization recorded 522 instances of gun violence that they responded to in the South and West sides, and 243 gunshot victims. 

The new law bans the sale, import, and purchase of a long list of assault weapons, including AK-47s, MAC-11s, and others. The law also bans large capacity ammunition magazines that contain more than ten rounds for long guns and fifteen rounds for handguns; these magazines can be attached to assault weapons but also authorized guns to increase the number of bullets fired at one time. 

The law also bans auto sears or “switches,” small devices that can be attached to the back of a handgun and other firearms and modify them to shoot rapid fire without having to squeeze the trigger for every shot.

“If you just go back—you don’t even have to go ten years back—you can go back as early as last year when assault rifles were just appearing out of [nowhere]… and spiral out of control,” said Jenkins. “The magazines that they use, it doesn’t just come out as a single shot anymore. So you get a whole lot of innocent bystanders being affected.”

Chicago Police Department records of weapons that were seized in recent years show that switch-enhanced guns were first detected on the streets in 2018 but their availability shot up dramatically in 2021, with over 350 seized two years ago, according to an analysis by WBEZ and the Sun-Times. The number of extended magazines seized nearly doubled within the same timeframe, from 459 to 924. 

Shootings involving extended magazines were twice as likely to have multiple victims as those without, the analysis found.

“Seeing the mass shootings that we seen, sometimes we don’t even get to sleep,” Jenkins said. “Sometimes we leave the hospital, and we have to turn around and come right back due to [all the harm caused by] the magazines.”

This past December, the Illinois House held committee hearings that drew survivors, family members, activists, and intervention workers who spoke in support of the measure. With a majority of Democrats in the General Assembly, the proposal faced few hurdles.

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For Chicagoans, the law doesn’t ban a whole lot that wasn’t already restricted before. Chicago banned assault weapons and large ammunition magazines in 2019, and similar restrictions have existed in Cook County for over a decade. Switches are already banned in every state and at the federal level.

But the law would make it harder for Chicago residents to obtain these weapons and devices. 

A 2017 report tracking the origin of guns recovered by Chicago police between 2013 and 2016 that were “illegally possessed, used, or suspected to be used in furtherance of a crime” found that seven out of the top ten sources were gun stores in the surrounding suburbs. Three of the stores were in Indiana, where no such ban on assault weapons or large ammunition magazines exists.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) reported that in 2021, the majority of firearms they recovered in Illinois were purchased or obtained in the state, followed by Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin and Kentucky. And those guns are overwhelmingly found in Chicago—nearly 10,000 of them that year. Meanwhile, Rockford, Springfield, and Peoria had about 400 firearm recoveries each.

“Fundamentally, we need to focus energy on people who profit off of gun violence,” said state senator Robert Peters in an interview with the Weekly. “Whether that’s people who sell, manufacture, or invest, [banning sales and manufacturing] is an important step in going at the problem from the high level, institutional, systemic side of things.”

Peters said that while more needs to be done to reimagine public safety and address the economic factors at the root of gun violence, his hope is that “we move away from penalty-enhancement strategies and go after the profit margins.”

The law faced opposition from many Illinois Republicans, who claimed it was unconstitutional. Several lawsuits have been filed by pro-gun activists to challenge the law. A judge downstate placed a temporary restraining order, but it only affected the 866 plaintiffs who signed on to the lawsuit. In a statement, Governor J.B. Pritzker said his office expected the lawsuits, but that the bill was drawn up with input from legal experts and mirrors bans that withstood legal attacks in other states.

Meanwhile, sheriffs in counties across the state, including in nearby DuPage, Kane, Kankakee, DeKalb, and LaSalle, have declared they will not enforce the law. DuPage Sheriff Thomas Mendrick said in a statement he will not “be checking to ensure that lawful gun owners register their weapons with the state, nor will we be arresting or housing law-abiding individuals that have been arrested solely with noncompliance of this Act.”

Mendrick and other sheriffs received backlash from lawmakers, activists, and citizens about their refusal to uphold the law. Pritzker called these statements “political grandstanding” and that sheriffs will have to enforce the law or face consequences. 

“Simply put, it is disturbing to hear that several law enforcement departments across Illinois will refuse to support the new gun safety measure signed into law this week. This legislation was not a symbolic act—it‘s a critical path to protect the lives of children and Black and Brown communities in our state,” said the Gun Violence Prevention Political Action Committee (G-PAC) in a statement.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart testified in support of the ban last year.

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Pre-existing owners of now-banned weapons and ammunition magazines may be able to keep them, but will have to register with the Illinois State Police by January 1, 2024, after which it will be unlawful to possess an assault weapon without registration. The law also moves up the requirements for universal background checks on private gun sales to July and makes it easier to keep firearms from people identified by relatives as a danger to themselves or others for longer periods of time.

“This bill is right, it’s a move in a positive direction,” said Tara Dabney, the Director of Development and Communications at the Institute for Nonviolence. “But there’s other work that still has to be done […] We hope the legislature will really dig into figuring out how to consistently make long-term funding changes and [pass the] policies that we need as a state to have a [larger] impact on reducing violence.”

The City spends about $35 million on violence prevention efforts, she said, and local groups may also count on county and state funds, in addition to private money. Still, Jenkins and Dabney said anti-violence programs are only reaching fifteen to twenty percent of the people they should be reaching. “Our horror and fear is that American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds are done at the end of Fiscal Year 2024,” Dabney said.

They called for more public funding for secondary victims, mental health services, affordable housing, and restorative justice for people who have been part of the carceral system.

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Jacqueline Serrato is the Weekly’s editor-in-chief. Adam Przybyl is the Weekly’s managing editor.

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