Illinois (AP) — Otis McDonald believes so strongly in his gun rights that he challenged Chicago’s handgun ban all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Virgil Mayberry is a dues-paying National Rifle Association member who wears a T-shirt proclaiming the late actor and gun-rights advocate Charlton Heston to be “My President.”
When it comes to the latest gun rights issue in Illinois — whether the names of the state’s 1.3 million gun permit holders should be made public — they disagree entirely.
“I think it’s another blow at innocent and law abiding citizens,” said McDonald, a 77-year-old retiree who fears that making gun owner’s names public would make them burglary targets.
Not so, said Mayberry, a 65-year-old member of the Rock Island County Board.
“I want this done because I’ve got nothing to hide. Law abiding citizens shouldn’t have a problem with people knowing, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a gun, I’ve got it in my house,” Mayberry said.
Across Illinois, an intense debate is unfolding over whether the right to bear arms includes the right to exercise that right in private. Responding to a Freedom of Information request from The Associated Press, Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office last week ruled that the names of gun permit holders are public information and should be disclosed by the Illinois State Police.
The case is headed to court. Four Peoria-area members of the Illinois State Rifle Association asked a judge Thursday to block the release of the names of the state’s Firearm Owners Identification cardholders, arguing that doing so would endanger the public. A hearing is scheduled Friday. State police officials say such disclosure is an unwarranted invasion of privacy and that they may also challenge the ruling in court.
Since the ruling, Madigan’s office has received more than a thousand e-mails and a couple hundred phone calls about the issue. The state Republican Party says it has received 5,000 signatures on a petition against the disclosure ruling. Editorial pages and radio shows around the state have taken up the issue. And it was fresh on the minds of an estimated 6,000 gun rights activists at a Thursday rally in Springfield.
Those who want gun owner’s’ names disclosed say it would keep the government accountable for its decisions about whom it grants permits to, allow people to know who among their neighbors are armed, and help firefighters know whether they are entering a burning building where there may be weapons.
Conversely, some gun owners argue that disclosing their names — which the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says is not required in at least 35 states — would stigmatize them in the eyes of those who oppose gun ownership rights and make them targets for criminals looking to steal firearms.
“It gives the bad guys two things,’ said Loren Smith, a Naperville resident who attended Thursday’s rally in Springfield. “Where to go to steal guns and the places to rob without worrying about getting shot.”
Adam Orlov, who joined McDonald in the successful lawsuit challenging Chicago’s handgun ban, agreed, largely because what he learned when he was a police officer.
“Not all criminals are stupid,” he said. “They do their homework and prepare (and) if they are looking to steal firearms they can make their decision based on this nifty list someone published in the newspaper.”
That’s not just an argument gun owners are making. Tio Hardiman of CeaseFire, an anti-violence group in Chicago, noted that among criminals and urban gangsters, guns are a form of currency. “You can bet money people will see who’s armed and break in those homes,” he said. Hardeman also believes disclosing the names would put non-gun owners at greater risk.
State Police officials have raised the safety issues before. But in its opinion last week, the Attorney General’s office said the State Police have given no details to back up the claims. The disclosure opinion applied only to permit holders’ names and the expiration dates on their permits, not to addresses or phone numbers, which would remain private.
Proponents of disclosure say there is nothing in the Constitution that guarantees gun owners the right to the element of surprise. They say if gun owners did nothing wrong or hide anything about their past that would have prevented them from getting a gun in the first place or did something that would justify having their gun taken from them they should have no problem with their names being public.
“I have no problem with anybody checking me out,” Mayberry said.
Furthermore, they say they have a right to look out for their own safety, and that part of doing so is finding out who in their community is armed.
“I’d like to know if my neighbor has a gun,” said Vince Thomas, a 76-year-old who has worked with an anti-handgun group in the Rock Island area. “I don’t have a dog any more but if I had a dog that poops on a yard I’d like to know if (the homeowner) had a gun or not.”
He and others dismiss the argument that releasing the names somehow puts people who don’t have FOID cards at risk for the simple reason that nobody, particularly criminals, believe that the number of FOID cards comes close to matching the number of gun in a community.
In Chicago, police routinely say there are tens of thousands of illegal guns on the street at any one time. Just last year, police seized 8,000 guns — about four times the number of people who registered guns in the city since the ban was lifted.
Perhaps not surprisingly, hunters, a group known for their staunch defense of their constitutional right to bear arms, the talk isn’t so much about whether or not they might be robbed but whether release of their names chips away at their privacy.
“The majority of gun pwners I know maintain a low profile and (gun ownership) is their own business,” agreed Steve Rowoldt, president of the Abe Lincoln Gun Club in Springfield. “These are very personal, very strong emotions.”
While Mayberry lives in a more rural part of the state where hunting is popular and guns are passed down from generation to generation, David Lawson, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that overturned Chicago’s ban, said that’s not the case in more urban where guns are most associated with violent crime.
“There is some prejudice against gun owners and a perspective employer says, ‘This guy who shows up is on a list, I’m not going to hire him, I don’t want a gun nut,'” he said.
“It kind of resembles the sex offender registry in many ways,” he said. “To create this list feels like the same thing.”
Associated Press writer John O’Connor in Springfield contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.