Illinois Lawmakers Inch Closer to Finalizing Rules Around Assault Weapon Registration

State Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, is pictured at the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules hearing Jan. 16, 2023, in Springfield. (Peter Hancock / Capitol News Illinois)State Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, is pictured at the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules hearing Jan. 16, 2023, in Springfield. (Peter Hancock / Capitol News Illinois)

A year after Illinois banned the sale of AR-15 style guns and high-capacity magazines, rules surrounding specifics of how to implement the law still aren’t finalized.

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The delay continues as a bipartisan legislative committee in Springfield attempted to get the job done Tuesday —but they’re close.

“Here we are now in January, after the first of the year, wondering where things stand,” state Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, said, during a Tuesday hearing on the rules. “I’m really quite frustrated that we could have approached this differently with a clearer time frame and trying to resolve many of these issues much earlier on.”

The latest rules draft largely satisfies a major privacy concern for gun owners challenging the underlying law.

The law, named the Protecting Illinois Communities Act (PICA), has banned the sale of hundreds of specific guns and types of guns since Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed it in early 2023.

People who owned guns that Illinois now classifies as “assault weapons” prior to PICA’s passage can keep them. However, the law also required those gun owners to have filed affidavits filed with the Illinois State Police by the start of 2024, specifying the make, model and serial number of each of those weapons, gun parts and ammunition.

“We certainly are trying to make it as easy as possible,” Pritzker recently said of the registration process.

A major point of contention for gun owners had been what the Illinois State Police would do with the registry should gun advocacy groups lawsuits seeking to strike down the law in federal court succeed.

The latest draft, teed up to be part of the ultimate package, would require the Illinois State Police to destroy those records should the U.S. Supreme Court or other federal court deem PICA unconstitutional.

But at the last minute, that language got what one Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) member described as “watered down” from what state police had previously agreed to, leading Republicans members of JCAR to attempt to condemn ISP and take the rare step of prohibiting the gun rules from ever taking effect.

That effort didn’t succeed.

But, with one Democrat absent from Tuesday’s meeting, Republicans succeeded in a 6-5 partisan vote at putting on record a JCAR objection to the rule and how the state police arrived at it.

“The process and the calendar management of ISP has been very frustrating. They’ve created moments of crisis in this process through their own failure to promulgate rules in a timely manner,” said Spain, who serves as co-chair of the commission. “We’re at the one-year anniversary of the passage of this legislation. Their emergency rules were not filed until September and their permanent rules were filed much too late, at the last second, in December. So they’ve created a lot of controversy and ambiguity for gun owners about what are the rules of the game.”

Spain described Tuesday’s objection vote as causing a “temporary pause.”

The objection will block the rule from being implemented in the future, even the near future.

The action will require ISP to respond in writing to JCAR’s concerns before the rule can take effect, though that can be a perfunctory exercise.

JCAR co-chair Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, said state police have 90 days to file that response, though they could do it in a matter of days, after which the rules will be codified without any vote or action on the commission’s part.

It’s a somewhat convoluted process, and a separate track from passing legislation. JCAR is typically a more passive body, save for relatively uncommon controversial topics, like the gun registry and, during the pandemic, enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions.

The goal of JCAR, Cunningham said, is to make sure that when a state agency is charged with implementing a new state law, that the agency’s rules conform with the legislature’s objectives.

“JCAR is a way for the legislature itself to indicate, yes, that’s what we intended, this agency is in compliance with the law, with the constitution and with what the GA intended when they passed the underlying law,” Cunningham said. “It’s the only committee in Springfield that is split even on a partisan basis, split even on a bicameral basis. That is the legal structure of the committee, but in practice that’s the way the committee works too.”

While the final rule in flux, a temporary, “emergency,” set of rules govern PICA’s implementation, including the gun registry.

However, Spain said the emergency rules don’t cover issues like what a gun owner who registered a gun covered by PICA should do if their FOID card is revoked and therefore they are no longer legally allowed to have any gun.

Before PICA was on the books, that individual could temporarily transfer the gun to someone else; with the assault weapons law that’s prohibited.

Some of the guns covered by PICA are expensive, and are worth many hundreds of dollars.

“What do you do with your firearms in the meantime, who do you surrender them to, how do you get them back?” Spain asked.

Spain said the permanent rule takes those questions into consideration by directing local law enforcement agencies to accept the relevant guns, and then either give them back if and when a FOID rights are restored or arrange for the firearms to be sold to a licensed dealer.

According to ISP data, by the Dec. 31 deadline, gun owners filed affidavits for nearly 69,000 firearms classified by the state as “assault weapons.”

There’s no way to know how many more gun owners did not register qualifying guns, either because they were unaware or willingly defied the law, as Darren Bailey, former Republican nominee for governor and current candidate for a seat representing southern Illinois in Congress, has bragged about as part of his campaign.

An Illinois State Police spokesperson said the emergency rules remain in effect and the agency will respond to the raised objections and is preparing to move forward with implementation.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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