Metro East sheriffs voice opposition to new Illinois gun laws. Pritzker pushes back
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
After Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he expects law-enforcement officers to enforce the state’s new gun law, five area Republican sheriffs announced they will not arrest anyone solely on the basis of those regulations.
Pritzker, a Democrat, signed the Protect Illinois Communities Act Tuesday, requiring gun owners to register their semiautomatic weapons and banning the manufacture, purchase and sale of certain semiautomatic weapons, as well as large-capacity magazines and .50-caliber rifles.
Gun owners who already possess these weapons will be allowed to keep them, but they must register their guns with Illinois State Police by Jan. 1, 2024.
Bond County Sheriff James Leitschuh, Clinton County Sheriff Dan Travous, Monroe County Sheriff Neal Rohlfing and Randolph County Sheriff Jarrod Peters issued similarly worded statements on social media outlining their stand against the law. They say they consider it to be unconstitutional because they say it violates the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“As the custodian of the jail and Chief Law Enforcement official of Randolph County, neither myself nor my office will be checking to ensure that lawful gun owners register their weapons with the State, nor will we be arresting or housing law abiding individuals that have been arrested solely with non-compliance of this Act,” Rohlfing said in his statement.
St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson, a Democrat, said he is opposed to the law that was spearheaded by lawmakers from his own party, but stopped short of saying he wouldn’t arrest people who violate it.
“I understand that our nation has witnessed frequent tragedies involving gun violence and I am in no way attempting to minimize the impact these events have had,” Watson said in a statement. “However, I do not believe we should limit the protections that have been guaranteed to law abiding citizens in the United States Constitution.”
Madison County Sheriff Jeff Connor, a Republican, said in a statement that he is “adamantly against” the law. In a statement issued Thursday in conjunction with Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Haine, the officials said they will await guidance from the court system before acting on the new mandates.
The Madison County Sheriff’s Office will “not expend its limited resources to check whether otherwise law-abiding gun owners have registered their weapons with the State, nor will the Madison County Sheriff’s Office be arresting or housing otherwise law-abiding individuals solely due to non-compliance with HB 5471.”
During the signing of House Bill 5471 on Tuesday, Pritzker said law-enforcement officers they “won’t be in their job” if they don’t enforce the new mandates.
“Well you don’t get to choose which laws you comply with in the state of Illinois, let’s be clear,” Pritzker said in a news conference on Tuesday.
“The fact is that yes, there are of course people who are trying to politically grandstand who want to make a name for themselves by claiming that they will not comply,” he said. “But the reality is the state police is responsible for enforcement as are all law enforcement all across this state and they will in fact do their job or they won’t be in their job.”
In response to a request from the Belleville News-Democrat, Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly’s office referred the issue to the governor’s office, which released a statement Thursday specifically addressing the elected sheriffs who have come out in opposition to the law.
“This is political grandstanding at its worst,” the statement said. “The assault weapons ban is the law of Illinois. The General Assembly passed the bill and the Governor signed it into law to protect children in schools, worshippers at church, and families at parades from the fear of sudden mass murder.
Sheriffs have a constitutional duty to uphold the laws of the state, not pick and choose which laws they support and when. We’re confident that this law will hold up to any future legal challenges, but again, it is the current law of our state. Anyone who advocates for law, order, and public safety and then refuses to follow the law is in violation of their oath of office.”
In their statement Thursday, Haine and Connor disagreed with the governor about whether this law is constitutional. “ ... We are acutely aware that this statute touches on fundamental constitutional issues and is in obvious tension with recent and binding Supreme Court precedent on the Second Amendment,” the Madison County officials said. “Among other things, it bans many of the most popular firearms in America, firearms that are currently in common use for lawful purposes and which law-abiding citizens have legally owned for many years.
“Whatever the policy justification, such a ban is hard to square with the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Bruen, which stated simply: ‘the Second Amendment protects the possession and use of weapons that are ‘in common use at the time.’”
Area state lawmakers opposed to the law have said they believe it is unconstitutional.
Mike Koziatek is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.