CHICAGO — State lawmakers who are bitterly divided whether to legalize the concealed carry of weapons now have six months to do it — or they may end up with no say in the matter after a federal appeals court threw out the state's concealed gun ban last week.
"After that (180-day) period, you and I could strap a rifle on our shoulder and walk down (Chicago's) Michigan Avenue and there's nothing anybody could do about it," said state Rep. Brandon Phelps, a gun rights proponent from Harrisburg whose concealed-carry bill failed last year.
The reason, lawmakers say, is that ignoring the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling carries the consequence of turning Illinois into a "constitutional carry" state. That means all Illinois residents would need to carry a concealed weapon is a valid Illinois Firearms Identification card, without the need for a permit or training.
The ticking clock will create an intense focus on the issue in the upcoming legislative session beginning in January, with opponents and proponents arguing over a range of options like those adopted by other states — if the appeals ruling is not stayed by an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Already, Phelps said there are signs of movement and compromise. Since Tuesday's ruling, he said, he's received calls from lawmakers in Chicago who have long opposed concealed carry but now are asking to be included in crafting a bill.
"That never happened before," the Democrat said.
At the same time, opponents of concealed carry are sure to cite recent shootings — especially last week's rampage at a Connecticut school that left more than two dozen dead, most of them children — to pressure for strict controls on who can carry and where.
"It would be difficult to believe anybody could go back to their districts and say 'I didn't vote to restrict weapons,'" House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat, said Friday after the Connecticut shootings.
It's possible that gun control advocates will seek to propose an alternative bill to Phelps', one that would have the backing of Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who are both vocal gun control advocates.
Illinois is the last state in the nation that bans concealed carry. The appellate court ruling, which gave lawmakers the 180-day deadline, was a major victory for gun rights activists who had vowed to make the state and its ban the center of the national gun control debate. They believe the ruling now gives them broad leeway to craft a bill without tough restrictions.
In four other states — Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming and Vermont — residents are not required to have any permit at all to carry a concealed weapon.
Most states, 36 in all, are required to issue concealed carry permits if applicants meet certain criteria that can include background checks and training requirements.
By contrast, nine states, including New York and California, allow residents to obtain concealed carry permits but only after law enforcement officials approve. Those stricter state laws have the support of gun control advocates.
In New York, the law requires that residents show a "special need for self-protection," and a simple desire for a gun or concerns about living in a high-crime area is not a good enough reason to carry a gun. The law was upheld last month by a different federal appeals court.
In California, the decision on who can get a permit is left up to the local sheriff's office. Gun rights advocates grumble about that, citing statistics showing it far easier to get permits in rural counties than in more-populated urban counties.
What gun-rights advocates' new bill probably won't look like, Phelps said, is the one that he tried unsuccessfully to push through last year with lots of concessions. He said it is unlikely he and other gun-rights proponents will settle for anything nearly as restrictive as the California and New York laws.
"It's a whole new ball game," Phelps said. "The court said there are no restrictions and all (a concealed carry law) had to be was reasonable."
He said last year's bill included prohibitions on carrying guns in places like schools, sporting events, churches, courthouses and police stations, but that list could be whittled down. He is against allowing guns at schools, and was even before the Connecticut shootings.
Phelps' new proposal likely would contain a provision requiring an applicant to undergo a background check. It also would require training for applicants before they are granted a permit, but perhaps not as extensive as the previous bill's call for an 8-hour training class from state police and both a written and shooting test.
"I'm sure some legislators are going to want 4-5 hours," he said. "Some may want 32 hours, but I doubt they'll get that."
One thing all sides likely will agree on is not letting the 180 days expire without doing something.
"This isn't a fiscal cliff, but it is a cliff," Phelps said