CHICAGO – This city, where violent street gangs shoot it out dozens of times a week despite some of the nation's toughest restrictions on guns, now faces a new challenge: Well-meaning citizens with the legal right to hit the streets with loaded firearms, whenever they want.
As Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn mulls whether to sign off on eliminating the country's last concealed carry ban, the question in Chicago is whether it will matter in the crime-weary city. Will a place that long had some of the nation's tightest restrictions on handguns be more at risk? Or will it be safer with a law that can only add to the number of guns already on the street?
Neighborhood leaders, anti-crime activists and police officials worry about additional mayhem in Chicago. But other residents, including some who live in Chicago's more violent areas, believe more guns will allow them to defend themselves better.
"We just had a weekend where something like 48 people were shot, seven died," said Otis McDonald, 79, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court tossing out Chicago's strict gun ban three years ago. "Now law abiding citizens like myself ... can carry them when they want to and not carry them when they don't want to, and the people out there who will do us harm won't know when we got them and when we don't."
At City Hall, where Chicago's anti-gun campaign has centered for years, the reaction to concealed carry legislation has been relatively quiet. The reasons seem to boil down to this: The city can do little about stopping the law because a federal appeals court ordered Illinois to end its public possession ban by this summer.
"We would prefer to have the (gun) bans we've always enacted... (but) it's the best we could do based upon the mandate we have," said Alderman Patrick O'Connor.
The bill sitting on Quinn's desk is a hard-fought compromise between conservative downstate lawmakers who opposed most gun restrictions and anti-gun lawmakers from Chicago and other urban areas. The legislation requires state police to issue a concealed-carry permit to any gun owner with a state-issued Firearm Owners Identification card, and who passes a background check, pays a $150 fee and undergoes 16 hours of training.
It's not as stringent as concealed carry laws in California, New York and a handful of others states, which give law enforcement authorities more power to deny permits. But it's more restrictive than earlier proposals by gun rights advocates, including one that would have superseded all local gun restrictions. For example, it won't wipe out Chicago and Cook County's ban on assault weapons.
Most significantly for gun control advocates, the legislation does prohibit guns in places like schools, buses, trains, bars and government buildings.
"If you think about all the prohibited places there are ... I don't think you will see an overwhelming number of people actually (carrying weapons) because it becomes such a headache," said state Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago lawmaker and lead negotiator on the bill who represents President Barack Obama's former state senate district.
But other city officials aren't so assured. Superintendent Garry McCarthy calls a requirement that people go through only 16 hours of training before they are issued a concealed carry permit "woefully inadequate" because about the only thing people can learn in that time is how to "point and fire a weapon" and not when they can legally do so.
"Our officers receive six months of training in the police academy and then three months on the streets and at the end of the day we make mistakes frequently," he said.
Another concern by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is the provision in the bill that calls for law enforcement and prosecutors to object to a governor-appointed panel if they suspect applicants are dangerous. In Cook County, where there are 358,000 registered gun owners, Dart said he's worried gang members and others who shouldn't have guns will slip through the cracks and be granted permits.
Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, has been quiet on his intentions with the legislation, his office saying he's "reviewing the bill carefully." But what he decides may be moot, given that the Legislature passed it by wide enough margins to override any veto.
Once the law is in place, Dart said he expects a flood of applications for permits, something that happened in November 2011 in Wisconsin, where within hours of becoming the 49th state to have a concealed carry law, tens of thousands of people downloaded applications. By the end of 2012, the state had issued nearly 110,000 permits.
During 2012, the first full year the law was in effect, Milwaukee's total for homicides and rapes remained virtually the same as the year before. As for robbery, the kind of crime that concealed carry supporters say would be reduced if more regular citizens had weapons, Milwaukee saw a 17.2 percent drop between 2011 and 2012. But police say so far this year the number of robberies has climbed by 19 percent.
Whether the law will have similar effects in Chicago is a matter of contention. Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest and activist on the city's South Side, doesn't believe criminals will hesitate out of some concern their victims might be armed.
"You are going to see a lot more gun fights and you are going to see people using guns as their first line of defense when they are confronted. To think guns are suddenly going to be the answer to violence in the city or the state, it's absurd," Pfleger said.
But Richard Pearson, Illinois State Rifle Association executive director, predicts Chicago's crime rate will fall. He argues that both sides in the gun debate will be watching closely what transpires.
"What goes on in Chicago is a very big deal because of their history of resisting firearm use," Pearson said.