U.S. Senators Focus on Highland Park in Gun Hearing; Mayor Calls for Gun Control

With the July 4 parade mass shooting reenergizing calls for bans on guns like the kind used by the alleged Highland Park shooter, a contingent of Lake County officials were in Washington on Wednesday for a Senate hearing focused on banning guns like AR-15s and high capacity magazines.

In the 16 days since seven people were killed in the Highland Park shooting, there have been 47 more mass shootings in the U.S., meaning that so far this year there have been 356 incidents in which four or more people were shot.

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“This is a crushing number when you consider its reflection on life in America. And it is disgraceful that we have done so little to stop it,” Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Illinois’ senior U.S. Senator, Dick Durbin said.

Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering told Senators that residents of her hometown will take a long time to work through questions like how to make children feel safe when it’s time to return to school; but her answer to what can prevent mass shootings is definitive.

“Bottom line we know that moving forward as a community, moving forward as a nation, we need to get combat weapons out of civilian hands,” she said. “It’s still a new journey for all of us. It will be a long journey. But right now, we need these weapons out of civilian hands.”

That testimony drew applause from the locals in the audience, and from Democratic Senators who want to ban semi-automatic rifles and large-capacity magazines.

Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat and veteran, said such weapons benefit troops on the battlefield, but aren’t necessary for civilian use.

“Whether it’s a soldier engaging enemy in combat, or an untrained mass murderer hunting children in a school, any shooter – any shooter – looking to efficiently kill multiple people without wasting ammunition will prefer a semi-automatic rifle coupled with a detachable large capacity magazine that enables rapid reloading,” Duckworth said. “As quickly as you can pull the trigger, it is chambering a new round. Every Senator on this committee should study what happens to a body when struck by a round traveling at a speed of greater than 3,000 feet per second … it liquefies your organs. Liquifies them. You have no chance of survival. You should seek out emergency room doctors who can show you what happens when a round penetrates a human body at high velocity, and tumbles around, exploding tissues and exploding those vital organs.”

Duckworth pressed committee members to reflect on relatives needing to provide DNA samples, because victims killed at the hands of military-grade weapons in the Sandy Hook and Uvalde mass shootings were unidentifiable.

Former marine Kyleanne Hunter, now with the nonpartisan RAND Corporation, said in war zones, semi-automatic rifles descended from the ArmaLite have been used in all conflicts since Vietnam and have advantages: They’re lighter and shorter (so easier to carry) and “can shoot more bullets more quickly, and their bullets are designed to do damage to the human body and even shoot through a standard issue military helmet.”

She said what makes them great “service” weapons is likely why they’re more lethal when used in crimes.

“When an assault weapon is used in one of these shootings, there are more than 14 times more injuries and twice as many deaths than when any other type of weapon is used,” Hunter said. “And it’s because these weapons were designed to kill as many people as quickly as possible.”

Hunter said lawmakers have stymied research that would allow for better data on these and other gun matters, but that even so, policy-makers should use logical deductions in determining gun policy – such as that banning these types of guns would reduce deaths and serious injuries, even if the rate of gun crime doesn’t slow.

But president of the National African American Gun Association Philip Smith said for a long time, Black Codes made it illegal for Black Americans to have guns, leaving them vulnerable and defenseless.

“Today in 2022, restricting American citizens from purchasing firearms has the same effect as the Black Codes of 1865. The end result is people – especially Black folks – unable to secure a gun which leaves them vulnerable. To me that is unacceptable and un-American,” Smith said. “If you implement a lot of these proposals that I’m hearing today, lots and lots of Black single women, lots and lots of Black men, who are trying to get protection in these tough neighborhoods – the hood, whatever you want to call it – are not going to be able to do that. That’s why it’s discriminatory in their long term effect on our community.”

He said Black Americans need access to AR-15s, which is what he uses to protect his home and family.

In the wake of the Uvalde school shooting, Congress recently for the first time in decades passed a gun control package that provides money for mental health and for red flag laws in states, institutes federal penalties for gun trafficking and requires more thorough background checks on those under age 21 purchasing a firearm.

One of the Bipartisan Community Safety Act’s architects, Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, has taken heat from some of his party for it, but Cornyn said he believes that law will save lives while preserving Second Amendment rights. 

“But one thing I am unwilling to do is to erode the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. Law-abiding citizens are not going to commit these heinous acts, they’re not going to commit crimes,” Cornyn said. “I wonder about the focus on the firearm as an inanimate object. An inanimate object won’t cause harm to anyone. What does matter is the person possessing that firearm.”

Cornyn said the focus on guns deflects from areas where Congress could make a difference, “like focusing on the criminals that committed 836 homicides last year in Chicago alone. This came in the wake of the defund the police movement and the so-called Ferguson effect where law enforcement officers were blamed as opposed to the criminals who committed violent and illegal acts.

Throughout the committee, references were made to crime in Chicago, and to laws in Highland Park and Illinois

“If the objective is stop mass murders, gun control doesn’t work. The State of Illinois has among the strictest gun control laws of any state in the country. Highland Park has even stricter gun control laws than the state of Illinois,” said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

After the hearing, Rotering said hearing takes like the Texas senators’ was like an “out of body experience.”

Highland Park has since 2013 banned assault-style weapons, but Mayor Rotering said the city is not an island – it’s a close drive from Wisconsin, where laws are looser. 

“As local governments, we cannot do it alone. We are only as protected as our weakest gun law neighbors. We are surrounded by states that have far more lenient gun laws and until those states are brought into line with the rest of us, we will continue to have this scourge, this stain on our existence as a great nation,” Rotering said. “To that end, we need a federal ban, we need a ban on assault weapons, we need a ban on large-capacity magazines.”

Illinois does not ban semi-automatic rifles or high-capacity magazines.

State Rep. Bob Morgan, D-Deerfield, said at a Washington press conference Wednesday that negotiations are ongoing among state lawmakers about action on gun control, including a ban.

It would require a super-majority of 71 votes in the House and 36 in the Senate to pass a ban that takes effect immediately, or 60 votes for a ban that would kick in July 2023.

Democrats hold 73 seats in the House and 41 in the Senate, more than enough to meet the three-fifths required for immediate passage.

Meanwhile, President Biden is expected to announce executive action on gun control on Thursday. 

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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