yesterday i had the opportunity to go to Springfield, IL with a group of CAPS (Community Alternative Policing Strategy) volunteers, organizers, and police representatives. the goal was to lobby two bills being put before the House. one, HR 758, was calling for universal background checks, regardless of where one purchases a gun. its main goal was to close the loophole that lets private handgun sales (person to person) be conducted without a background check(this bill would not affect rifles/shotgun sales). currently only sales from registered gun dealers are required to have background checks. the second bill never made it up for a vote, but it was to re-enact the assault weapons ban here in the state.
i learned a few things in this lobbying process yesterday. as our leader, Glen Brooks, told us on the way down, this legislature thing is an art, not a science. here's a few things about the process itself.
"working the rail". that's what we went to do...along with a few hundred other people. and that's just the everyday sorts of folks. there were lots of meetings happening in hallways and rooms with people going on, as well. working the rail is essentially crowding around the entrance to chambers and requesting an audience with one's Representative. we were given a list of state reps who were on the fence on the universal handgun background check issue, and told to request for them to come out and meet with us. my rep (Berrios) was not on the list, but Annazette Collins was. her district lies pretty much in the middle of the triangle made by where i live, work, and tutor...humboldt park, lawndale, and austin, respectively.
it took a bit but she finally came out and we talked for about 5 minutes about the various common sense gun bills out there. she told me she would vote yes on HR 758. seemed pretty much like she had already decided that, but Glen told me later that was a huge conversation...he had listened in, i guess. we worked to get other reps out to talk...some came...some didn't. one chicago rep, whose name i didn't get, came and talked with us for several minutes. he pretty much gave us the lay of the land regarding both sides of the line on this bill.
we worked the rail for about an hour and then went up to the gallery to watch our legislature at work. hmmmm...what a process. what may have worked quite well in 1808, and maybe even 1908, sure seems to be a little overmatched for 2008. i doubt the founding fathers could have seen the sorts of issues that would come up for the governments of today. we sat in chambers for about an hour. we saw about 10 bills come up to a vote. while the bills were explained and debated (if they were debated), our reps were talking on the phone, talking to each other, out at the rail. and then when the votes came up, i watched one rep go and press the voting button of 6 or 7 reps (a whole row) who weren't at their desks. not once, not twice, but on nearly every bill.
not only were they not at their desks, or listening to the bill or debate...several times they didn't know at all what the bill was about prior to the introduction of the bill to the floor. this is where i don't think Washington/Adams/Jefferson could ever have foreseen the volume and variance of things presented to the lawmakers. so we had 116 reps on the floor that day and we expect that they have qualified knowledge on dozens of bills. it's not possible. i watched one rep, probably barely 30 years old, struggle to explain a bill he was presenting. when pressed by republicans on the purpose of the bill, he stammered, hemmed and hawed, about exactly what veterans this will would serve (under 100 in the whole state). he had an assistant to his right who looked up answers in a few different file folders. after a few minutes of being pressed, he asked that the assembly vote "Aye" on his bill. it passed without a "Nay" vote. and was one of the bills for which i saw one person press several voting buttons.
our bill hadn't come up by 2 pm, and we were supposed to be part of a press conference, so we left the gallery and went to a press room. we were instructed to not comment or ask questions of the 12 or so alderman, deputy police superintendent, and several other pretty high ranking city officials that had come down in support of HR 758. they had come to meet with House Speaker Madigan, as well as several representatives who were opposed to passage. it took about 20 minutes for them to get there, as well as the reporters. the aldermen and other officials spoke for about 15 minutes and then the floor was opened for questions. the first two were from a 70 something year old man and a pastor, both part of our group. it was hilarious. (when we debriefed on the bus later, the pastor said "it's not my fault...they asked for questions" however, he didn't ask one. he preached...literally)
after about 10 minutes of questions from the press it was over and we were told that HR758 had just been presented for debate. it was our original intent to leave after the press conference, but we were told by a lobby group (IGA...don't know exactly how they relate to us) that we had been effective in our lobbying and we should watch. so...back up to the gallery for lesson number 2 on the legislative process.
none of the bills we had seen to this point were debated to this extent. it went for over an hour. and it could not have been more divided down party lines. essentially, we the people, were told that this gun problem, this 20 out of 23 CPS students killed by gunfire, this illegal gun running into the city...this was all a chicago problem. we were told that because owning a handgun in chicago is already illegal, that if we simply enforced the laws we already have we would quite obviously cure the ills of illegal handguns. never mind the fact that we add laws to currently enforceable laws all the time to tighten the restrictions (e.g. zero-tolerance laws for underage drinking, or new penalties/restrictions for driving in construction zones. we were told that the only real intent of this bill was to force law-abiding citizens who desire to sell their handguns to add another step to the process. apparently everyone outside of the city of chicago is a law-abiding citizen.
the time for voting came. the speaker had to ask for a verified vote, meaning this vote would be actually voted on by each rep. no button pressing for the row on this one. this was going to be verified. sort of makes one less thrilled with all the non-verified votes out there.
now, of the current 4 common sense gun bills, none has ever passed. they've been presented for at least four years each now. they are greatly opposed by the NRA (if you need to know how powerful, and insensitive, that group is, go watch Bowling for Columbine). last wednesday the "one gun a month" bill which would allow a person to only purchase one handgun a month received only 53 of the 60 votes it would need to pass. and, like HR 758, it would not apply to rifles or shotguns...only handguns. so when the voting started and no's quickly outnumbered yes's, we thought we were in for more of the same. but the sides evened up around 40, and eventually green was up 59-55. two votes left to cast. and then before the last two were cast, someone switched. it went to 58-56. and then the last two votes. two red ones. 59-57. and still we heard a murmer through the gallery...a majority! and then from the floor came "WAIT!" and someone again switched. 58-58. dead even. it didn't pass. it's the closest one has ever come. last week's 53 votes was the highest before that.
i'll leave this entry to end here. it's more of the working of the government. rather than lengthen it more, i'll put my thoughts and feelings into another entry, so as to save your eyes and scrollbar. but based on yesterday, my guess is Mr. Heldman goes to Springfield again. and probably gets a little more involved in the political process than he ever hoped or intended to.