Criminal justice and gun violence are defining concerns of modern life. Concerns about safety on the streets, equity in our society, the fundamental right to self-protection, and the costs to our communities, all get wrapped up in the discussion.
These concerns were all intermixed this week — in a county court room, a state hearing room and a series of civil court public filings about the aftermath of gun violence. The three formed a triptych of sorts, a profile of what’s at stake as Illinois struggles to deal with some of the most fundamentally vexing issues of our time.
In Kankakee, a county judge heard a lawsuit brought by state’s attorneys seeking to invalidate the SAFE-T Act. In Chicago, guns rights advocates in a state legislative hearing opposed a proposed ban on assault weapons in Illinois. And in court filings, grandparents struggled over custody of 3-year-old Aiden McCarthy — orphaned when his parents were killed in the massacre at Highland Park’s July Fourth parade.
At first blush, the proceedings may not seem directly related. But that’s a false impression. Guns are at the center of each, as is their unarguable impact on society.
The hearing in Kankakee focused on technical aspects of the SAFE-T Act just two weeks before it’s set to take effect. The Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act seeks to revolutionize the criminal justice system in Illinois, going beyond virtually any state in the U.S. in its pursuit of equitable treatment for people accused of violent crime in Illinois.
The law is based on high-minded notions about equity, as well as scholarship and practical experience. It seeks to release people from jail while they await trial, even many accused of violent crimes. Cash bail, proponents say, is a pay-to-play system that favors the wealthy.
The most obvious oversights of the SAFE-T Act were addressed during the Illinois legislature’s fall veto session. New language allows a judge to hold an accused person behind bars if they are perceived as a threat to the community. This repairs prior language in which the threat needed to apply to a specific person, not the community at large. Vague language about the types of crimes that qualify for no-cash bail has been cleared up.
More than half of Illinois’ state’s attorneys publicly opposed the law at first. Now, despite the fixes, many are still fighting it in court. Kankakee County State’s Attorney James Rowe in a court hearing Tuesday argued the legislation improperly usurps the power of judges to rule on the treatment of accused criminals. At more than 700 pages, he argued, the law includes too many elements, violating a requirement that the Illinois legislature limit bills to a single subject at a time.
Guns are at the center of modern-day concerns about violent crime, and a hearing at the Michael A. Bilandic Building in downtown Chicago on Tuesday focused on an effort to ban assault weapons — the weapon of choice for mass shootings and increasingly well-armed street gangs alike.
In the Bilandic Building hearing held Tuesday, gun rights advocates trotted out their usual defenses of gun ownership: the Second Amendment right to bear arms; the right to self-defense; the fact that most gun owners obey the law.
That last argument was undermined, in my reading at least, by the testimony of gun lobbyist Todd Vandermyde. He threatened civil disobedience if the assault weapons ban passes the Illinois legislature. Gun owners will hold on to their assault weapons, Vandermyde warned. “They’re not going to turn them in,” he said.
Amid all the technical talk about the SAFE-T Act, and the gun lobby’s critique of the proposed assault weapons ban, a quietly proceeding civil court matter offered a glimpse into what’s at stake for society when we consider the issues arising around guns and they mayhem they can produce.
Aiden McCarthy was just 2 years old when Robert Crimo III allegedly opened fire with a Smith & Wesson M&P semi-automatic rifle from a rooftop overlooking Highland Park’s July Fourth parade. Aiden’s father Robert laid over the toddler, took a bullet and died. Crimo’s assault rifle was allegedly used to kill Aiden’s mother Irina, too.
Now the boy’s two sets of grandparents, and an aunt and uncle, are asking a court to decide permanent guardianship for the boy. Control over $3.3 million raised for the boy in a GoFundMe campaign is at stake too. Trust among the relatives seems to be breaking down, amid concerns over the boy’s grief and state of mind.
Aiden is just one victim of gun violence in Illinois. In Chicago, guns were responsible for most of the 674 homicides reported at last count. And that’s actually an improvement from the 797 killed last year, according to the Chicago Police Department. Young children, some of them toddlers like Aiden, have been among the dead.
When we argue about the impact and the legality of the SAFE-T Act, or about the proposed assault weapons ban, it helps to remember what’s really stake.
Young children and families, neighbors and communities, are among the victims of gun violence. Equity for the accused is important, and justice for the victims too. Gun owners have their rights, and will defend them, even to the point of civil disobedience. Amid all the hearings and speechmaking, the lawyering, posturing and maneuvering, sometimes the victims of violent crime don’t fully get their say.
David Greising is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.
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