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Editorial: Enact gun laws that make a real difference

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Laying down a single sandbag can help hold back a flood, sure, but you would never think to puff up your chest and declare victory. You would keep throwing down sandbags.

A lot of politicians in Illinois don’t seem to get that.

On Tuesday, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill that increases prison sentences for gun traffickers, people who buy a bunch of guns (legally or not) and then sell them illegally. It was only a modest step forward, not even applying to anyone with a legal Firearm Owners Identification card, but the way some Springfield pols patted themselves on the back, you’d think they’d just blocked illegal gun sales with a virtual Hoover Dam.

Almost any law that slows down gun traffickers is good. By all means, go for it. But a flood of illegal guns is swamping Chicago with shootings, pain, suffering and death. Just last weekend, seven people were killed and 47 were wounded in Chicago shootings. Tuesday’s small step hardly justifies a victory lap. Not when proposals that would be much more effective are languishing in the Statehouse.

The bill Rauner signed increases the prison sentence for a first gun trafficking conviction to up to 20 years. For subsequent convictions, the sentence will be punishable by up to 30 years. Before the law was signed, sentences could be as short as one year.

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As Rauner touted the new law at a special bill-signing ceremony in Chicago, he and some other state leaders portrayed it as a huge accomplishment.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said, “The laws are more focused on holding the shooter accountable, but not the person who armed the shooter. That changes today with House Bill 6303.”

A press release from the governor’s office said, “This will help keep our kids and communities safe.”

If only.

More to the point was what the distraught grandmother of a 14-year-old boy slain by gunfire told the Mary Mitchell in Tuesday’s Sun-Times: “The guns are right here under your nose.”

Here’s a tip-off to the value of the bill Rauner signed Tuesday: It passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate. That doesn’t happen on something as bitterly contested as gun-law reforms if the legislation is going to be a big leap forward. Even as the bill-signing ceremony was under way, back in Springfield a proposal to allow home-rule communities to ban assault weapons within their borders was taking a beating in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Firearms. One lawmaker reported the discussion was “heated.” How many mass shootings will it take for the Legislature to do something sensible in this area?

If the governor and Democrat-controlled Legislature are truly serious about taking on gun violence, here are three measures they could enact that would make a much bigger difference.

  • State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, and state Rep. Michael J. Zalewski, D-Riverside, are proposing presumptive sentencing guidelines to keep the worst gun offenders off the street for a longer period of time. The guidelines would call for longer sentences, but allow judges discretion in special circumstances. Authorities complain current sentences are too lenient. For example, about three-quarters of the people who were arrested in Chicago on gun charges from January through March of 2015 were back on the street by June.
  • Legislation has been introduced to allow Illinois to require licenses for gun dealers. That would give the state a tool to crack down on the few gun shops that are the sources of huge numbers of illegal guns that show up at crime scenes. Forty percent of guns recovered from Chicago crime scenes come from gun dealers in Illinois.
  • A law that would allow families of people going through crisis to petition courts to have guns temporarily remove firearms from their homes could save lives without affecting the vast majority of gun owners.

Later on Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said of the bill Rauner signed, “This legislation is a step in the right direction in terms of increasing the penalties for those who knowingly bring guns into Illinois illegally, and we must continue to build upon this new law … ”

“Continuing to build” — and build, and build — those would be the key words.

The illegal guns keep flooding in, right under our noses. No half-measures, no single small sandbag, will contain the flood.

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