Backlash against weapons ban grows
Jersey County sheriff latest to balk at enforcement

JERSEYVILLE – Jersey County has joined a list of about 80 Illinois counties where sheriff’s and other law enforcement officials have said they will not enforce provisions of the state’s new weapons ban.

On Thursday afternoon newly-elected Jersey County Sheriff Nicholas Manns posted a letter on the department’s Facebook page detailing why he and Jersey County State’s Attorney Ben Goetten will not be participating in the enforcement of HB 5471.

The law bans the sale and possession of “assault weapons” and accessories such as large-capacity magazines, as well as .50 caliber rifles and ammunition. The banned weapons include some specifically names, and others by technical definitions.

However, it grandfathers in weapons that are registered with the Illinois State Police.

Mann said he would be using “lawful discretion” in enforcing the new law.

“When it comes to law abiding citizens and lawful gun owners, we will not be checking for registration of your firearms with the state, nor will we be arresting otherwise law-abiding citizens solely with non-compliance of this Act or housing such citizens in our jail,” he said. “For those who would otherwise violate our laws or unlawfully possess firearms, we will continue to consider all applicable charges in order to protect Jersey County.”

Manns said he consulted with the Jerseyville, Grafton and Elsah police chiefs, as well as Goetten, before posting the statement.

Making a similar announcement Thursday was Madison County Sheriff Jeff Connor and Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Haine.

Similar actions were taken by the sheriffs in Greene, Macoupin, Calhoun and other counties throughout the state. All use similar language, and cite the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms, specifically for personal protection, as well as recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings they say indicate a strong possibility the law will be overturned.

“Like many of you, we are very concerned by the passage of HB 5471, which bans certain commonly-used firearms and firearm components in the State of Illinois,” the statement from Connor and Haine said. “Overnight, thousands of otherwise legal gun owners fear their Second Amendment rights are in jeopardy.”

Both Connor and Haine, Republicans, have repeatedly said they are “pro Second Amendment” and that they expect “strong” legal challenges to the law.

According to the law, a gun owner’s failure to provide the state police with the serial numbers for all assault-style rifles they own prior to Jan. 1, 2024, will be a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in prison. The degree of charges could increase based on the number of unregistered guns.

Illinois Sheriff’s Association head Jim Kaitschuck contended it would be impossible for local sheriffs to know who in their county owns assault weapons if those gun owners don’t voluntarily comply with the law, suggesting it would be ridiculous to go door-to-door to find out.

“We have no inventory of guns bought and sold that are available to local sheriffs,” Kaitschuck said of information partially available to the Illinois State Police. “We don’t have access to it — and I’m not asking for it either, by the way.”

Several gun rights organizations say they are planning to challenge the law in federal court, buoyed by a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision which Second Amendment proponents believe could mean friendlier opinions on firearms-related claims moving forward.

Scott Pulaski, owner of Piasa Armory, an Alton gun store, said Thursday that there will “absolutely” be legal challenges. He said a group in Northern Illinois is planning to file suit in federal court, and other groups such as the Illinois State Rifle Association will also be filing suit.

“We’re going to work with them,” he said, noting the plans are to file in the Southern District of Illinois. “The goal is to get a challenge in the next week, and to aim for an injunction to stop enforcement.”

“It is unconstitutional,” Pulaski added. “We already have a good decision from the (U.S.) supreme court.”

At Piasa Armory, Pulaski said the ban will have both an immediate and large effect on the business.

“Sales are halted effective immediately,” he said. “That’s going to have a pretty solid impact on us. That was probably about 25 percent of our business.”

He added that accessories ranging from magazines to gun modifications will also be impacted.

In addition to future sales, it has also impacted already-completed sales where customers were waiting for items to arrive.

“We have people who bought things in December or New Year’s Day, sales that are just arriving, and they can’t do paperwork,” Pulaski said. “Not only are the state banning things, they are depriving people of property they have lawfully purchased before the ban went into effect.”

In general, the General Assembly vote last week followed both party and geographic lines, with most of the support concentrated in Chicago and the Collar Counties and larger urban areas.

In one of his last acts before leaving office, state Sen. Kris Tharp, D-Bethalto, crossed party lines and voted against the ban. Also voting no was state Sen. Jil Tracey, R-Quincy. Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville, did not vote but had opposed the ban.

State Sen. Christopher Belt, D-Swansea, was the only Illinois senator representing part of Madison County voting in favor of the bill.

“We can’t sit back and hope mass shootings will stop,” said Belt. “I would not have supported other proposals that take away rights from law abiding gun owners.

“We have worked for months to find the best solution and that’s why I supported this measure,” he said. “This legislation is a middle ground that retains access for law enforcement to continue protecting our neighborhoods and gets weapons of war off our streets and out of the hands of bad actors.”

In the house, state Reps. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville and Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, voted in favor of the ban. Opposed were state Reps. Amy Elik, R-Fosterburg; Charles Meier, R-Okawville; and Christopher Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville.

“I voted against the firearm ban signed tonight by Governor Pritzker because I support the Second Amendment and believe this bill is unconstitutional,” Elik said after the House vote. “I am optimistic that law-abiding citizen’s right to keep and bear arms will prevail in court when this law is struck down.”

Kris Brown, president of Brady, a gun-control advocacy group, praised the law.

“Today, Illinois took a major step in better protecting families and communities, and ensuring that tragedies such as Highland Park never happen again,” he said. “After witnessing tragedy after tragedy, where innocent civilians are gunned down by weapons of war, the people and lawmakers decided enough was enough. This same passion and dedication is a model that should be replicated in all municipalities and states that have suffered gun violence.”

Last month the Madison County Board voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution opposing the ban. It passed 22-4, with Democrats Michael “Doc” Holliday and Bill Stoutenborough, both of Alton and Victor Valentine and Alison Lamothe, both of Edwardsville, opposed.

The resolution calls for the repeal of the Firearm Owners Identification Card Act.

This is not the first time the county board has taken up the issue of gun control. In 2018 it passed a resolution for a nonbinding referendum declaring Madison County a “Sanctuary County” for gun owners. The referendum was approved by a 2-1 margin in November 2018.

The move to make Madison County a “sanctuary county” for “law abiding gun owners” came up as a way to “send a message” to upstate politicians. Supporters at the time said the passage of the referendum was symbolic, and has no practical impact other than sending the message.

Last week Democrats and advocates who pushed for Illinois to pass the nation’s ninth statewide ban on assault weapons said they expected litigation. On Thursday they maintained that, unless the law gets struck down, sheriffs’ refusal to enforce any part of it is a dereliction of duty.

“They took an oath of office to uphold the law,” said Gov. J.B. Pritzker at an unrelated news conference. “As law enforcement, that’s their job. And I expect them to do that job.

“You can have all the resolutions and declarations that you want (but) the reality is that the laws that are on the books, you don’t get to choose which ones people are going to follow,” he said.

Kaitschuck countered using the common example of police declining to write a ticket to a driver pulled over for driving 10 miles over the speed limit.

“If I pull somebody over for speeding going 65 in a 55, and I don’t write them a ticket, does that mean I’m not enforcing (the law)?” he aked. “And I know we’re talking apples to oranges here, but…my point on this is that officers have discretion. We don’t arrest everybody we could or else our jails would be totally overrun.”

The sheriffs’ letters this week primarily dealt with enforcing the registry portion of the assault weapons law. Kaitschuck said he wasn’t aware of any sheriffs in his organization who don’t plan on complying with the law’s other provisions, such as the ban of sales of assault weapons at Illinois gun shops.

However, Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Harold Krent argued the sheriffs’ letters go beyond what was explicitly stated. He said the symbolism of law enforcement officers refusing to comply with state law is a slippery slope.

Krent contrasted the sheriffs’ move with state’s attorneys’ actions surrounding the cashless bail provision of Illinois’ SAFE-T Act, which was supposed to do away with cash bond in Illinois on Jan. 1. Despite grumbling from dozens of state’s attorneys in Illinois, even the staunchest opponents to the law were at least somewhat prepared to comply with it in the new year – until the Illinois Supreme Court stayed the law on Dec. 31, pending a full appeal.

“There, (the state’s attorneys) went to court and said, ‘We’re not going to block the process but we want a judicial resolution.’ That’s a norm in our country,” Krent said. “…The General Assembly has decided (the assault weapons ban is) constitutional. The attorney general has decided it’s constitutional. I think it’s an incredible risk for sheriffs to say, ‘We’re not going to enforce a law.’ …because that’s encouraging a lack of respect for the law.”