Courtrooms in the Clouds

Why Can’t the Media Report Truthfully About the Safe Neighborhoods Act Controversy?

By J. D. Obenberger, Attorney at Law
© 1999 J. D. Obenberger, All Rights Reserved

A small diversion from the law of Sex this month. Instead, I will throw caution to the wind, and jump head-first into the controversy arising from the Supreme Court’s decision in early December to invalidate the so-called Safe Neighborhoods Act. I am concerned that a media campaign has so distorted the issues in the public consciousness to the extent that well-intentioned, intelligent citizens cannot properly understand what the controversy is all about. Our Governor’s statements on the issue have been misleading and disingenuous in the extreme. The mainstream media has followed the party-line of the most rabid elements of the anti-gun lobby.

You will recall that immediately after the Supreme Court declared that the so-called Safe Neighborhoods violated our State Constitution’s One Subject Rule, the Governor called the legislature into special session in the week before Christmas and in the week after Christmas. You would think that a real emergency existed.

From our Governor and the Chicago Media, one would get the impression that unless the provision in question is re-enacted, the law is powerless to deal with gun-carrying criminals. That impression is simply wrong, and seriously wrong. In fact, the State Senate refused to concur in passing the law again, the provision has not been re-enacted, and crime has not suddenly gone out of control.

I have been reading the Trib and the Sun-Times carefully, and listening to WBBM with both ears. I haven’t read or seen one piece that actually explains the actual issues being fought in Springfield between our Governor and Senate President concerning the UUW Statute.

In fact, this was a stupid law that brands otherwise law-abiding citizens concerned with their own self defense as Convicted Felons and is totally unnecessary to defend society from violent and predatory criminals.

The propaganda campaign is the usual one waged by the anti-handgun lobby. First, they try to make their opponents look silly or like cranks. To this end, the Governor is heard on a WBBM soundbite calling it preposterous that the State Senate President would assert that hunters have anything to fear from this law because no hunter has ever been prosecuted. Well, if that were the position of the opponents of the law, it would be silly. But that’s not the issue, that’s a strawman argument set up just to knock down: The real issue is self-defense. Second, WBBM soundbites next focus on an emergency room physician emotionally describing the horrible injuries which guns bring to his emergency room. That’s surely true, but if the guy on the operating table got there because he got shot while trying to rob a cab driver or a deliveryman, I don’t think he is a proper object lesson against handgun violence. Better him than his victims!

What’s it really all about? Well, lets begin at the beginning.

Any police officer or criminal lawyer can tell you that the law already has some very strong teeth to deal with criminals who commit crimes with guns. There is, for example, the Armed Violence Statute, which turns a whole litany of lesser crimes into very serious Class X Felonies, with mandatory minimum 20 year prison terms, without the possibility of probation, if the offender had a gun in his possession. I read a recent case sustaining the conviction and mandatory sentence of a defendant who was sleeping at home in his bed, with a gun under his home pillow, and a very large quantity of drugs in the home as well. The Police came in to execute a search warrant, found him asleep with the gun, woke him up, charged him with Armed Violence, and had him sentenced and convicted. He won’t be sleeping there again for many years. (“Armed Violence” is a misleading term that was used to obtain the support of legislators and citizens for passage of the Act. After all, who could possibly oppose laws to seriously punish armed violence? However, in reality, the law escalates many completely non-violent crimes into the terrible Class X arena, such as drug offenses. More about misleading names for laws later in this article.)

Other features of our Criminal Code that are now in force, provide for serious mandatory prison terms whenever a weapon is fired in the commission of an offense (twenty years) or where someone is injured by the weapon during a crime (life in prison). Finally, it is also a Class A misdemeanor to own a weapon - even without carrying it - unless you have a Firearm Owner’s Identification Card. (I’ll bet that you could fit all of the active gangbangers carrying a gun in the City who have a FOID card into a very small room.)

So, with all of these very serious laws in place, carrying massive penalties, to protect the public against violence from firearms, what is the Governor so concerned about? Why has he called the legislators back, at a cost to us of over $50,000 per day? Why were Mayor Daley and our Police Chief talking to the press about it every day during the Christmas season?

What is at stake is the felony punishment provision of the so-called “Unlawful Use of a Weapon” Statute. Now this is a curiously-named law, and neither the Mayor, the Police Chief, the Trib, the Sun-Times, nor WBBM did much to enlighten the public at just what conduct is targeted by this law. There is precious-little “use” in Unlawful “Use” of a Weapon. It is a criminal statute that punishes the mere possession of firearms in some circumstances, just about anywhere except in your home or at your fixed place of business. You face one to three years in prison for carrying a pistol for self defense if it is concealed on your person, or even out in the open on the front seat of your car. Even if it is for self-defense. Even if you are a 100-pound female parking her car at night in a parking structure in the South Loop. Even if you are an elderly person who walks home through a dangerous neighborhood from public transportation. Even if you are a cab driver who must carry his fares anywhere they want to go, even into the projects or desolate areas.

Have you ever seen what’s left of a cab driver after they get done robbing him?

Have you ever spent time with a young woman right after she was brutally assaulted by a stranger who lurked in the shadows?

There are no “concealed carry” permits in Illinois. (Unlike Indiana and roughly 20 other states that allow ordinary citizens to carry a weapon for self defense, many of which experienced plummeting declines in violent crime after enacting such laws, and all of which showed at least some decrease.) Unless you’re a cop or a private detective, you are committing a felony under the UUW Statute when you carry a concealed weapon. So, it’s easy for the Police Chief to stand up in favor of turning ordinary citizens into convicted felons for daring to tempt the law by preparing for personal defense in a life-and-death situation: He gets to carry a gun everywhere, and I suspect, so do most of his social friends. Similarly, it’s no burden to Mayor Daley. He and the Aldermen can lawfully carry a gun (Mayors and Aldermen are “conservators of the peace” under the Municipal Code, and probably have all of the rights and privileges police officers), and the Mayor travels with a police security detail. What about the rest of us?

This felony UUW provision is used when there simply is no other crime to charge the person with, and it targets people who break no other criminal law. If there are drugs involved, if there is a robbery or a burglary, or a sexual assault, the prosecutor can easily have the offender indicted for Class X Armed Violence and send him away for many years. No, this provision is not aimed, nor is it particularly used, against gang members, organized criminals, terrorists, or the like. It is meant for turning ordinary citizens into convicted felons.

I have represented several clients in recent years for UUW. In each case, they were arrested after a routine traffic stop involving license plate registration. They each worked on the road, and their jobs took each of them into dangerous neighborhoods routinely. In each case the weapon was found during a search of the car, and there was no suggestion in either case that it had been nor ever would be used for any purpose other than self-defense from violent criminals. Neither man was a gangbanger, neither had any significant criminal history, and one was over the age of thirty. And they were charged with this felony.

In other words, they were guys just like you and me. They were dangerous to nobody. In the second case, the Assistant State’s Attorney prosecuting my client told me that, per orders from his big boss downtown, no “deal” would be made in any case under this law in exchange for a guilty plea unless it involved a jail term.

Why haven’t the mainstream media sources that we customarily rely upon for news about public matters been frank, why haven’t they told the public that the only people targeted by this law is people like themselves, who are guilty of no other crime? Why haven’t any of them simply told the public that the “use” involved in UUW is just possession in a vehicle or concealed on the person? Simple: Those who dominate the media in this City, and who shape public opinion by the way that they report news and define issues, have the suppression of all guns as part of their public agenda. And if, (God Forbid!) the public actually knew what this debate was all about, perhaps they would actually contact their legislators to oppose re-enactment. Maybe, just maybe, the public would oppose an action that turns their natural desire for self-protection from criminals into a feloniously criminal act itself.

In the last term of the State Legislatures, both houses concurred in an amendment to reduce that provision of the Safe Neighborhoods Act back to a misdemeanor for the first offense, but the Governor vetoed the bill, it failed to get 2/3 in each house, and the veto stood. The isolated provision we are concerned with here has never really been popular with the people, the legislature knows that, the media knows it, and that’s why there is a campaign of deception and partial truth: That’s why the media doesn’t explain the actual content of the bill before the legislature.

What can you do? Write a letter, make a call, send an e-mail to your State Senator and your State Representative. Do it NOW because the pressure is on your representatives to re-enact this law. Tell them that you will not be fooled or lied to. You know that there are laws a-plenty to deal with criminals who commit crimes with guns, and that you know that this provision is aimed at self-defense weapons carried by good citizens. Tell them that you don’t want these good citizens to lose the right to vote, to hold public office, to obtain a liquor license, to engage in a profession licensed by the State, or to have their good names destroyed by a felony conviction just because they prepared themselves to defend against forcible felonies.

This article is written to generally inform the public and does not provide legal advice nor does it establish an attorney-client relationship. If you have a legal issue or question, contact a lawyer. If you are arrested, make no statement and contact a lawyer immediately.

Joe Obenberger is a Chicago Loop lawyer concentrating in the law of free expression and liberty under the United States Constitution, and his firm has represented many owners, employees, and customers of adult-oriented businesses, both online and in the real world. He can be reached in the office at 312 558-6420 or paged in any emergency at 312 250-4118. His e-mail address is xxxlaw@execpc.com