BANNED IN MORTON GROVE; A LEGAL SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD
Morton Grove, Ill.
What's a peaceful green suburb in America's conservative heartland doing in the cross fire of an emotional national controversy over gun control? Morton Grove's village trustees effectively asked for the dubious honor. They voted earlier this summer to flatly ban both the sale and possession of handguns. The action was the strongest by any jurisdiction in the nation.
Not surprisingly, the move has prompted strong reactions both nationally and locally.
Down at the Village Hall, a smartly refurbished former elementary school, the mayor and the six village trustees who made the decision have been deluged with hundreds of letters from across the United States. So far, those favoring the action outnumber critics by 2 to 1. A strong thread of emotional feeling underlies all the letters. "Should the nation go as your town did," a Cartersburg, Ind., man writes, "the communists would take over overnight." On the other hand, a New Yorker reacts this way: "I can't tell you how heartened I am to see public officials finally have the courage to do the necessary, the needed, the wanted. . . ." From Cincinnati: "Aren't you aware that a gun law is just one more silly piece of paper to a criminal? -- It's laws like this that promote lawlessness." And from Baltimore: "Your courageous move is greatly appreciated. -- How long before it plays in Peoria?"
In Morton Grove itself gun control is still the talk of the town, even though the board's action is now more than two months old. Mayor Richard Flickinger insists that if a referendum were held, those favoring gun control would outnumber opponents by better than 2 to 1. But a reporter, making phone calls and the rounds of grocery parking lots, restaurants, and city streets, finds ample strong feeling on both sides of the issue and a somewhat surprising number of residents still on the fence.
"I'm definitely in favor of banning the sale of handguns, and I think it's right to make people more conscious of the dangers involved," insurance man Tom Ryan says as he stacks several bags of groceries into his car. Mr. Ryan owns some hunting rifles, which, he is quick to stress, are very different from handguns. "European countries are much stricter than we are about guns. I remember in Ireland in 1972 when a father turned in his own son for having a round of ammunition in his pocket. . . . But I'not sure they [village officials ] should have gone so far as to ban possession."
"You want my opinion?" asks Jack Rubin, manager of a Union 76 gas station on Harlem Avenue, as he carries on with his work. "I'm for it. I think it's a good leader for the rest of the country."
"I think the action was necessary," comments Don Wilkinson, a wholesale meat cutter and hunting gun owner, as he returns some books and records to the local public library.
Over at the Contessa Pancake House, one of the village's main gathering spots on Dempster Street, which divides the northern and southern parts of Morton Grove and runs through neighboring northern suburbs, co-owner Chris Pontikas says the message he's received from overhearing customers is that they're "thrilled" by the board's action. Clearly, he is too. "I think it will make this community safer," he says. "People with guns will think twice before they come through. Even just passing by, they could get picked up."
But Mrs. Evelyn Permer, who is active in the local historical society, predicts the action will have no local effect "whatsoever."
"It's divided everybody here -- especially residents against politicians," she says. "If some of those people writing in from around the country think it's so great, why don't they do something about it in their own towns and keep their noses out of our business?"
There is little in this small community's outward appearance or its history to suggest why Morton Grove took the strong gun control stance it did.
One of Chicago's closest northwest suburbs, it covers a compact area of about five square miles and is tightly sandwiched in on all sides by other suburbs. It is crisscrossed diagonally by the Milwaukee Road railroad line, which carries commuters into the city, and by a lush green band of parkland known as the Cook County Forest Preserve, which borders the north branch of the Chicago River.
Though the community technically received its name in 1895 when it had a mere 100 residents, it was largely developed in the late 1950s and early '60s. Many of its early settlers were from Germany and Luxembourg, but the 23,747 people now living here represent a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. Though there are very few blacks, there has been a significant influx of Japanese, Chinese, Indians, and Pakistanis over the last five years. Almost everyone in town lives in neat, single-family homes with well-tended lawns.
This is both a blue- and white-collar community. There are several small industrial plants, including an Avon manufacturing facility and a pharmaceutical research and distribution company, which draw workers from other suburbs as well as locally. Few residents are on welfare. Though the latest census data are not yet available, village planner Charles Scheck estimates the average income at about $25,000.
Neither Morton Grove's voting behavior nor the level of criminal activity here prodded trustees to take the action they did. In national elections Morton Grove voters have shown a distinct preference for Republicans. Ronald Reagan won a clear majority here in the three-way race last November. And the town's crime record is no worse than that of many of its neighbors. There have been relatively few handgun deaths and shootings here.
So what did make this community suddenly decide to take the bold stand it did in curbing handgun sales and ownership?
"It's really hard to say why it happened here -- it took everyone by surprise ," Rick Behren says, leaning one arm on his typewriter at the weekly Morton Grove Champion office, where he is a writer-editor who has followed the story from the beginning.
The answer seems to lie more in timing and circumstance than in community roots.
The issue landed innocently enough on Morton Grove's doorstep last fall when Geoffrey LaGioia, a local resident, applied for a business license to open a handgun sale and repair store in a small shopping mall in a residential area. He would have been one more of the nation's 175,000 gun leaders. But the application was at first informally denied by the police department because one of the partners involved had a questionable background. The matter was temporarily dropped. But by spring Mr. LaGioia, who had said he only intended to sell handguns to policemen (a proposal greeted with skepticism by some trustees), wanted to put his license request before the village board for a formal vote. He claimed he had invested too many thousands of dollars in the project to let it go and that his associate was no longer involved in the venture.
By this time many of the neighbors of the shopping mall, concerned about the effect of the new business on their children and the area, had mobilized forces against the move. But village attorney Martin Ashman told trustees they could not refuse the application on zoning grounds.
"I told them I thought they could stop it by an ordinance which dealt with the larger question of whether or not they wanted to stop the sale of firearms," Mr. Ashman says.
From that moment on, the whole question of the value of handguns and their effect on the community was up for public discussion. Don Sneider and Neil Cashman, the two trustees who proposed the sale and possession bans, respectively, felt strongly that there was a need for tighter controls on handguns. They viewed the license request and the neighborhood concern as catalysts for facing up to the larger issue.
"Nobody's ever shot at me, but I've been thinking about handguns for a long time," says Mr. Cashman. "It's an issue that's bothered me an awful lot. I can't see any purpose for having them except for law enforcement."
But two proponents for handgun controls did not a majority make. The night of the big vote was set for June 8 in the Village Hall. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and its state affiliate had sent out fliers urging those concerned to come two hours early. In the end several hundred, many waving American flags, showed up to fill the 72-seat auditorium. Thanks to local cable TV, those waiting outside and those still in their homes could follow every second of the four-hour meeting.
Aside from the four guest speakers, two on each side of the issue, and elected officials such as state Rep. Aaron Jaffe, who had organized a local anti-handgun rally the day before the vote, only Morton Grove residents were invited to speak. A regional Pioneer Press poll published in April by the 27 area newspapers, including the Champion, had shown a strong majority favoring a ban on handgun sales or stricter federal controls. But residents who spoke up at the meeting were against the proposed ban by 8 to 1. Opponents argued that the proposals were unconstitutional, would advertise the town as an easy target for criminals, and would prompt only honest gun owners to turn their weapons in.
The procedure was democratic -- a three-minute speech per resident -- but many present protested when the past-midnight votes did not echo the audience's sentiment. As James Sloan, Morton Grove's assistant administrator, says, "It was as if the trustees were supposed to be Arthur Godfrey's talent scouts with an applause meter."
The mayor had said he would vote for both measures in the event of a tie ("You can't convince me that having a gun around does anybody any good"), but his vote was never needed. The decision to ban the sale of handguns was a strong 5 to 1. And the vote to ban handgun possession was a closer 4 to 2. The only trustee voting consistently against both measures was Joan Dechert, a park district employee, who termed both laws an arbitrary move to take away individual rights. Joining her on the possession ban vote -- and netting a standing ovation for the deed -- was trustee Richard Hohs, who had been the victim of an armed robbery. He argued that tougher prosecution of criminals is the more effective answer to the problem.
The "surprise" vote favoring both bans was cast by Greggory Youstra, a teacher who owns handguns, holds a fifth-degree black belt in karate, and is a firm believer in training for self-defense.
After putting in a hard afternoon of lawn work and still dressed in a purple T-shirt and jeans, Mr. Youstra settled into a comfortable chair in his living room to explain why he voted as he did. He describes himself as a life-long conservative both in politics and religion. He says he was a "fence-sitter" on the gun control issue until he began getting phone calls before the June 8 vote.
One caller, identifying himself as a member of a national pro-gun group, urged him to vote against the measures and suggested that he could easily be the town's next mayor and have all the financial help he needed for the run. "With our money, you can't miss," he was told.
Though Mr. Youstra says he has had every intention of running for higher office, the offer of help virtually decided for him which side he was on.
"It would have been easy to grab the money and run," he says. "No one could really have accused me of selling out. But they really blew it. This is the smoke-filled back room at its worst. Any organization or cause that has to bribe legislators tells me there's something inherently wrong and immoral about it that I don't want to have anything to do with. . . ."
"I believe in personal defense, but I don't think handguns are the name of the game," adds a Morton Grove official who has kept them only in his capacity as a peace officer. Illinois law includes village trustees in its peace officer definition. "Handguns are for killing," this officer says. "They're designed to blow people away. They make the individual the judge, jury, and executioner."
Most Morton Grove trustees who voted for tighter handgun controls say it was their lack of dependence on their part-time trustee jobs that helped them stay independent in voting.
"There's no question that an astute politician would steer very clear of this kind of controversy," Mr. Youstra insists. "the pro-gun groups will stop at nothing to destroy the credibility of those who oppose them."
Indeed, most trustees were subjected to considerabler pressure both before and after the vote. Those voting for the gun bans have received a number of threatening and angry letters at their homes. Mayor Flickinger says that at one point, three men in their early 20s yelled obscenities at him and threatened to hit him with their basevall as he drove by.
"There's been plenty of intimidation, but it just shows the kind of people we're up against and convinces me more than ever that we were right," the mayor says.
"The pressure has been tremendous and all pretty heavily con," agrees trustee Don Sneider, who teaches special education in a Chicago school and has been a resident of Morton Grove for 15 years. "But it's just made me more adamant. I still think the vast majority of people here are very happy about this decision. And I think the pro-gun forces are really running scared. Maybe they feel the courts will rule against them."
Legally Morton Grove's ban on handgun sales and possession is far from final. Some residents still talk of a possible trustee recall or second vote. The Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, an anti-gun-control group claiming 300,000 members, wrote after the vote to each trustee favoring the bans, asking him to reconsider his vote and warming that he could be held personally liable for passing unconstitutional laws.
The Illinois House of Representatives has passed a bill that would have nullified the action by forbidding Illinois towns or cities to restrict the sale or possession of firearms. The Senate has not yet taken up the issue, but it will when the legislature reconvenes in October.
In addition, the Village of Morton Grove and its public officials have been slapped with two lawsuits by local gun-owners, supported by national pro-gun organizations. These charge that the ban on handgun possession -- which takes this community further than a similar District of Columbia law passed five years ago, which "grandfathered in" that those already owning handguns could keep them so long as they registered them -- violates a constitutionally guaranteed right to "keep and bear arms" and deprives them of private property without compensation. Both sides say they are willing to take the issue all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Jenner & Block, a Chicago law firm, has agreed to donate most of its services to the town during the long fight ahead. The National Coalition to Ban Handguns , one of the two major groups favoring gun control which have sprung up in the last five years, has agreed to pay the rest.
"I know we have a long way to go, and it's going to be a hard fight against money and numbers," trustee Neil Cashman says. "But I have every confidence that the Supreme Court will rule in our favor."
Those opposing gun controls insist that the Morton Grove ban on handgun possession goes right to the heart of a basic human right.
"If you don't have the right to the means necessary to protect yourself, you, in effect, do not have the right to protect your life so you do not have a right to life," reasons John Snyder, a lobbyist for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and treasurer of the Second Amendment Foundation, two groups that are contributing money and other support to a lawsuit filed agianst Morton Grove.
Both supporters and opponents of this community's gun control action say they are eager to see the controversial question resolved once and for all by the Supreme Court.
The key issue will be whether or not the Second Amendment's underscoring of the right to bear arms refers to individuals as well as to states' rights to maintain a "well regulated militia." Another legal consideration, says Richard Gerstein, a Miami lawyer and immediate past chairman of the American Bar Association's criminal-justice section, is whether or not the definition of "arms" would include hanguns -- "which are not ordinarily used to defend the country."
In the meantime, few expect that Morton Grove's twin ban on handguns will have an adverse effect on local business. Jim Gordon, owner of the All Sports store here on Dempster Street, is the only one in town selling guns, and he insists they have always been a very small portion of his athletic goods business.
"The NRA wants me to fight this," he says with a tone that indicates he has already decided not to object. Mr. Gordon says he has only six or seven handguns left in stock to dispose of. The big sellers now are the white T-shirts he keeps up front in his store for those who want to wear their gun opinions on their chests. Selling best he says, is the version where the words "My constitutional right" appear beside a picture of a gun.
Though licensed gun collectors and those who use handguns in their jobs are exempt from the new possession ban, other Morton Grove residents have until Sept. 6 to turn in their handguns. They can store them in another suburb, give them away, sell them, or turn them in at the Village Hall. There will be no knocking on doors or confiscation. And any first offense carries only a fine. As a petty offense it will not be entered on any individual's record.
Most advocating the bans say they have few illusions that this one community's action would in itself be effective, particularly in stopping criminals from getting and using handguns. What many talk about is the strikingly high percentage of gun-related incidents involving, not criminals, but family and friends who know each other and shoot by accident or in the heat of a quarrel.
"To me, that's really the big reason for this," trustee Sneider says. "Guns beget violence. When they're out of the house, the house is safer. . . . If what we did saves one life, it will have been worth it."
The other key hope of village trustees voting for tougher handgun controls is to convince lawmakers and voters in other jurisdictions that such action is possible. For the moment, most neighboring communities interested in similar bans are opting to wait and see what happens in Morton Grove's case. The legal committee in nearby Arlington Heights, Ill., for instance, recently tabled a rule to ban handguns on just that basis.
"It's got to start somewhere," Mr. Sneider says. "After all, child labor and pollution laws started at the local level. If enough other communities do this -- and I don't think voters realize their own strengths on this issue -- it could start the ball rolling and send the message to state legislators and even to Congress."
Rep. John Porter, who represents Morton Grove residents in Congress and who personally favors a ban on handgun sales (but not possession on grounds it is unenforceable), agrees: "I'm a firm believer that most things that happen in Washington don't lead but follow other trends already in place."
"If this kind of thing can happen in Morton Grove, I'm almost positive it can happen in other places," insists Sandy Horwitt of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns. "The events leading up to the vote were so unremarkable. The trustees weren't acting in a state of panic. I don't think this would have happened four or five years ago. Certainly the celebrity shootings of John Lennon, Reagan, and Pope John Paul II played a role. But I think mainly the fear and concern about everyday handgun violence has really begun to sink in. . . ."