Illinois cuts first-time "gun offenders" a break, but there's a catch

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

Have you noticed that the gun controllers are generally far more interested in enacting laws than they are in enforcing them? There’s probably more than one reason for their emphasis on putting new laws in place than seeing existing laws enforced, but I think what drives that internal contradiction more than anything is the fact that while Democratic voters love the idea of more restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms, they’re also far more likely to complain about “over policing” and “mass incarceration”. So, in order to appeal to their base of support the anti-gunners spend far more time talking up the need for new laws while paying little mind to how often (or not) existing laws are actually used.

There are exceptions, of course, like promoting the use of “red flag” laws, but again, those don’t result in jail time or prison sentences, “only” the confiscation of lawfully-owned firearms. When it comes to most non-violent, possessory offenses, however, the gun control lobby is far more invested in putting new laws in place than they are seeing existing laws enforced.

Case in point: Illinois’ new scheme for first-time offenders caught possessing a gun without a valid FOID card or carry license. We’re told on a regular basis how vitally important these types of licensing restrictions are in promoting public safety, but after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a measure allowing almost every first-time offender to avoid legal consequences for illegally carrying a gun, gun control groups haven’t uttered the slightest criticism, though they’re quick to heap scorn on virtually every effort by Republicans to decriminalize the right to keep and bear arms.

A probation program for people charged for the first time with illegally possessing a gun will continue indefinitely under a measure signed by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker after passing through the legislature with some Republican support.

The program was previously set to expire at the end of the year and limited to defendants under 21 with no prior convictions for violent crimes. In addition to striking the expiration date, the new law does away with the age restriction.

The measure is among the latest criminal justice reforms approved by Pritzker, who signed it last Friday, the same day he held a news conference to herald his signature on legislation that loosened restrictions on people who remain under state supervision after being released from prison.

The evening before, Pritzker discussed the first-time gun offender program during a talk about gun violence at a north suburban synagogue.

Pritzker said the diversion program was meant to help young people who grow up in underserved communities and around violence avoid a life of crime.

“This is a problem that we’ve been trying to deal with in so many other ways in sentencing,” the governor said before an audience of a couple hundred in Temple Jeremiah in Northfield. “We’re not talking about people who committed terrible violent crimes. We’re talking about people who committed a felony but not a violent felony.”

Here’s a thought: maybe carrying a firearm without a government-issued permission slip shouldn’t be a felony in the first place. Further, if the state of Illinois and politicians in Chicago didn’t make it so difficult to obtain a carry license, maybe there’d be fewer people carrying a gun without one in the first place. It’s been 13 years since Chicago’s ban on handguns was struck down by the Supreme Court, and it’s still impossible to lawfully purchase a firearm or receive the training mandated by the state in order to receive a carry license without venturing beyond the city limits.

Decriminalizing the right to bear arms would raise the ire of anti-gun groups and a good portion of the Democratic base, however, so instead Pritzker and his legislative allies are keeping the criminal statute in place and subjecting those arrested to court supervision, while doing everything possible to keep offenders out of prison.

The first-time gun offender pilot program was passed about six years ago by the Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly. Under the new guidelines, participants will no longer be required to submit to a drug test or show they’re seeking employment, enrolling in school or performing community service. Courts would still have leeway to impose those requirements, however.

The program would also now last anywhere from six months to two years, instead of the previous 18 months to two years. Once completed, the gun charge against participants is dropped.

The program is only for people who face nothing more serious than a Class 4 felony, the lowest felony level.

This is a tiny step in the right direction, which is why the measure actually received bipartisan support in the legislature. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough, especially when data shows the vast majority of those arrested for illegally possessing a gun do not go on to commit violent crimes. Again, we’re told that the FOID card system and draconian carry laws are aimed at rooting out violent criminals, but the fact is that most people charged with illegal gun possession aren’t violent actors to begin with.

During the spring legislative session, state Sen. Ram Villivalam, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the measure, cited support from groups such as the Illinois States Attorneys Association and the Illinois State Rifle Association. He also pointed to a 2021 Loyola University Chicago study showing that just 7% of defendants in Illinois who were released from prison for illegal firearm possession during a four-year period in the 2010s were rearrested within three years for using a gun to commit a violent crime.

The bill breezed through the House 98-6, with a number of Republicans voting yes. It was a tougher sell in the Senate two days earlier, passing 37-16 with just three Republicans siding with Democrats.

Some of the Republican support was due to fears that the state’s strict gun laws, including a ban on many high-powered weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines that is now tied up in court, could ensnare otherwise law-abiding citizens.

So now Illinois is in the odd position of criminalizing the right to keep and bear arms but actively avoiding applying serious consequences for the felony offense, all while erecting even more barriers between we the people and our Second Amendment rights and refusing to dismantle those roadblocks already in place. It doesn’t make a lick of sense from a public safety perspective, but then, the gun control movement is rarely if ever about reducing crime. The real goal is eradicating our right to keep and bear arms, and the state’s expansion of its first-time offender program still serves that purpose even as it cuts against the anti-gunners usual talking points.