Illinois Sheriffs Call New Gun Law...Tyranny?
January 13, 2023
This week, the Illinois Governor signed into law a bill that bans the purchase and sale of “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines, while allowing people who already own such guns to keep them. These owners, according to the bill, must register these guns with the Illinois State Police. Republican lawmakers said they would oppose the bill – already now law, so how is unclear – calling it “tyranny.” Because as we all know, having to register a device whose sole purpose is to kill human beings as efficiently as possible is the same as, I dunno, arbitrary detention and show trials.
Of course, the Illinois Sheriffs Association – which represents all of the sheriffs in the state and forms a formidable lobbying bloc in the state legislature – opposed the law. On the day the bill crossed the Governor’s desk, the majority of sheriffs’ offices said that they would not enforce it, primarily referring to the registration requirement, which they say violates the Second Amendment.
Most sheriffs used what appeared to be a form letter, which argues (without evidence) that such a law is useless because “criminals don’t follow the laws.” Of course, if that’s a reason not to pass a law, sheriffs are just talking themselves out of jobs. But we all know that has nothing to do with their opposition. Substitute various racial groups for “criminals” versus “lawfuls” and the letter reads like nothing has changed since Nixon perfected this dog whistle in the 1970s.
That’s where I think media often gets it wrong. This entire tantrum by the sheriffs is not about enforcing gun laws. I repeat, it’s not about guns.
How do I know? Well, first, the law isn’t an affirmative requirement so there is literally nothing to enforce. Cops aren’t going door-to-door to check whether people have registered their assault weapons any more than cops go door-to-door to check if the occupants have car insurance. (A sheriff even admits here he would use the law just to pile on more charges.) There’s no requirement that law enforcement does anything at all, even if I call and report that I saw my neighbor walking with an assault rifle looking angry. Now, on the other hand, if the police think that I might be doing something they don’t like, they can show up and trash my house looking for an unregistered assault weapon.
To be clear – I’m not personally against bans on assault rifles or other gun control, and I’m not enough of a scholar/mystic to know what’s constitutional at this point with respect to guns. But I do think that a lot of people are in prison for gun ownership, and most of those people are BIPOC.
This leads to my second point. These sheriffs don’t care about penalties for gun possession because people in Illinois are arrested for gun possession all the time – especially after a 2011 change that made it a Class 4 felony if the gun was “loaded and accessible.” Where was the sheriff outrage?
From a 2021 study out of Loyola University Chicago:
Of all Class 4 felony possession convictions in all of Illinois, the report shows, 33% stemmed from 11 of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods and 76% of convictions occurred in Cook County. Statewide, 55% of people convicted were Black teenagers and young men between the ages of 18 and 24 years old (34% were between 18 and 20); in Cook County, 58% of people convicted of Class 4 felonies were young Black men under 24 years old. To add necessary context, only 14.6% of Illinois’ population identify as Black.
Here’s where we get to the crux of the matter. It’s about race.
Sheriffs and their allies are happy to blame Chicago – especially Black residents of Chicago – for gun violence all while arguing that their “law-abiding” communities don’t need gun control measures. Let’s be real. This is about racism. Guns are only bad when the people wielding them aren’t white men.
“Gun violence in Chicago” has become the synecdoche law enforcement uses to talk about racialized gun violence that happens in Black and POC communities as something that is isolated from structural conditions and disinvestment. It is used to delegitimize grassroots movements that seek to reduce the societal and government investment in police and police violence against BIPOC.
Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Arizona, who does not live in Chicago and hasn’t visited, so far as I know, told me, “I don't think that Black Lives Matter is productive for the Blacks. I don't. Because if they were, they'd be in Chicago, raising hell over these kids being killed.”
I confess that I get a little frustrated with the media headlines – “Sheriffs refuse to enforce gun laws!” (Again, there’s nothing to enforce, see above.) This isn’t a two-sided argument where the sheriffs are earnestly standing up for a dearly-held belief. I mean, honestly, it’s silly. A Facebook post is surely the weakest form of rebellion.
At this point, my fellow media people should know what this is about. They should not be fooled into thinking that “good police” will enforce laws and “bad police” won’t. The fact that these sheriffs feel perfectly fine writing white power dog whistles is all we need to know.
Here’s the thing, though. If those same constituents got wind that their sheriff was not following the far-right playbook, they would happily remove them and use those guns to do it. That’s what happened on January 6 when police got in the way. It’s not that the far-right doesn’t want police; it’s that they want the police to reinforce white supremacy, just as they were designed to do. The left just keeps turning its face, hoping that one day the police will save us.