After Parkland, a Surge in Advocacy, Illinois Groups Say

By Nathan Rizzo
Medill Reports

Following the Parkland shooting, the opening lines to this latest act in a tired, nationwide drama are being written: Gun control is, once again, in play.

A new cast, however, may be waiting in the wings.

In Illinois, lawmakers on Wednesday will vote on whether to bar individuals under 21 from acquiring certain firearms and high-capacity magazines, and to impose a 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases.Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill one day earlier that would have newly applied licensure requirements to gun dealers.

Rauner said the “duplicative” measure would have proved financially burdensome for firearms retailers while doing “little to improve public safety.”

Yet, advocacy in support of legislative efforts to both regulate and deregulate firearms has taken on a newfound poignancy in the wake of the Valentine’s Day killing of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Prominent groups on both sides witnessed a surge in interest following the shooting, they say, with significant input from volunteers – some of whom were previously on the sidelines.

“It’s because we’re all from here,” said Eileen Soderstrom, 71, a retired IT specialist and board member of People for a Safer Society, a Chicago-based gun-control group.

“We’re motivated by gun violence in Chicago. People are concerned that young people in society are in
danger.”

Amid the effort to rally legislative support for the licensure bill, Soderstrom said, nearly 500 volunteers affiliated with groups including People for a Safer Society mobilized for an appearance in Springfield, a three-hour drive from the Chicago area.

“We had a big influx after the Parkland event,” she said of the volunteers, some of whom had come from outlying towns including Evanston and Naperville.

The following Saturday, an event hosted by People for a Safer Society at an Evanston café was replete with newcomers.

“We filled the side room with new people,” Soderstrom recalled, “and people who’d been on our contact list, but hadn’t come out yet.”

“Usually, it’s mostly all women. But close to one third of the people who showed up that day were men. We’re seeing more men involved now,” Soderstrom continued, pointing to one previously uninvolved male volunteer who had been moved to take up the cause on behalf of his deceased wife, herself an activist.

“The shooting inspired so many people.”

“I’ve been doing this for seven years,” said Colleen Daley, Executive Director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence.

“The largest influx I saw of volunteers was right after Sandy Hook. But second to that, which shouldn’t be surprising – but ended up being a little bit surprising – was actually Parkland. And I attribute a lot of that to young people not letting this leave the media.”

A recent event sponsored by the Council, the nation’s oldest and largest such group, sold out, Daley said. “And it was young professionals – they’re out of college.”

“But the number of younger people,” she exclaimed. “They are coming out.”

“People really are talking about this and are engaged on it and want to do what they can.”

Some prominent gun-rights organizations within Illinois have reported similar gains in membership and volunteer interest. While spokesmen for the Illinois State Rifle Association and the National Rifle Association’s Illinois affiliate did not respond to requests for interviews, support for firearms advocacy nationally has surged in the wakes of mass-shooting incidents.

Following the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the NRA announced it had enrolled 100,000 new members in 18 days. NRA tax filings published by ProPublica revealed that income from membership growth increased by $70 million between 2012 and 2013. Overall revenue, the filings indicated, had climbed by 35% relative to the prior year.

Valinda Rowe, a spokesperson for IllinoisCarry, a 10,000-member online forum dedicated to advancing concealed-weapons privileges in Illinois, has witnessed a similar trend.

“Oh sure,” she said of the uptick in subscriptions. “A lot more people are getting involved here in Illinois.Seeing all of the bills introduced in Springfield that would severely restrict the rights of gun owners here in Illinois has people concerned.”

A raft of onerous and redundant legislation before the Illinois General Assembly, Rowe said, has motivated the newfound interest in IllinoisCarry. As an example, she pointed to House Bill 1465, the measure raising to 21 the lawful age for firearms purchases in Illinois, as a significant subscription driver.

Gun owners under 21, but of legal age at the time of purchase, she said, would be nevertheless obligated under the law to surrender what was otherwise “legally acquired property.”

“So that’s a huge issue, especially for sport-shooters, and competition, and those who are training for possibly looking at military careers or a military marksmanship team.”

Save for certain exceptions reserved for Olympic competitors, she said, “there’s no leeway for them.”

Rowe has observed another nascent pattern in the growing number of school board members who, she said, have contacted IllinoisCarry for advice on how to protect schools and to lobby for the support of armed staff members in school safety plans.

“We’ve had several school board members throughout the state call and ask, ‘What can we do now to protect our students in the case like the Parkland high school incident?’”

“There were so many failures,” said Rowe, recalling the alleged security lapses taking place in the midst of the Parkland shooting. Now, she continued, “the people contacting us are saying, ‘We want people inside the school who are there and ready;’ trained and able to stop someone who comes into their school with that kind of intent.”

Notwithstanding the novel dimensions of a hallmark American polemic, time has appeared otherwise incapable of shifting its pillars.

Asked if IllinoisCarry had received overtures from gun-control groups seeking to catalyze a unifying dialogue, Rowe returned a succinct reply:

“No.”

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