Showdown over guns, death penalty

Gov. Rauner's amendatory veto diverts debate on gun reform to reviving the death penalty


By Mark Guarino

Have Michael Madigan and Bruce Rauner agreed to something?

Yes and no. On Thursday, a spokesperson for Gov. Rauner released a statement saying that the governor applauds the powerful Illinois House speaker for scheduling a hearing Monday to determine if Illinois needs to restore the death penalty. The proposal is part of a larger public-safety package introduced by Rauner last week that also includes banning bump stocks and extending more state aid for mental-health services.

Yet it’s the death penalty that is at the heart of Rauner’s demands. He wants it available in cases involving mass shootings and the killing of police officers.

With yet another school shooting in Texas on Friday, and with the General Assembly actively trying to address the issues around that with various bills for gun-law reforms, the governor is more concerned with reviving the death penalty as a solution.

Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011 following a long period of wrongful convictions. Before that, former Gov. George Ryan issued a moratorium in 2000 and commuted the sentences of more than 100 death-row inmates to life in prison.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the average cost of a death-penalty case is $1.26 million, while a similar case without the death penalty in play costs $740,000. An inmate on death row, meanwhile, costs $90,000 more a year to maintain than a prisoner in the general population. What's more, a study commissioned by the General Assembly in the 2000s found that local prosecutors were more willing to pursue the death penalty in order to shift costs to the state.  

The new proposal is part of Rauner’s amendatory veto of House Bill 1468, which is calling for a mandatory “cooling-off period” of 72 hours following an assault-weapon purchase. Madigan responded by saying in a statement that the governor’s ideas “deserve a full hearing and consideration before the House.”

Madigan said, “We look forward to hearing from stakeholders and continuing our effort to keep our children, our schools, and our communities safe from senseless gun violence."

The one person Rauner’s amendatory veto didn’t sit well with is state Rep. Jonathan Carroll, a Democrat from Northbrook, who sponsored the original bill.

In a statement, Carroll said he was “shocked” that Rauner vetoed bipartisan legislation to “substitute his own language at the last minute without any consultation” with him or any of the bill’s sponsors. Yet Carroll admitted that he accepted the veto and will agree to the governor’s changes.

“I will not let the governor end debate by forcing a political stalemate,” he said.

In addition to Monday’s hearing, where stats on the death penalty are sure to come up, House members will have two weeks to either accept Rauner’s changes or try to override them.

It's a showdown on both sides. The calculation by Madigan to move Rauner’s proposals forward undercuts the argument that would make it seem as if he is defending people like Shomari Legghette, who allegedly shot and killed Chicago Police Department Cmdr. Paul Bauer in February outside the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago. Yet, if Democrats don’t accept Rauner’s proposals, they’re vulnerable in November to being seen as soft on crime or not in lock-step with local law enforcement. By voting with the governor’s veto, however, Democrats risk looking weak on party principles.

For Republicans, the risk is with the guns. Rauner’s changes expand the 72-hour waiting period from assault-type guns to all firearms. That brings Republican House members at odds not only with the National Rifle Association, but with many of their own constituents in the far rural pockets of the state that oppose any regulation of firearms.

Monday’s hearing will take place at 2 p.m. before the House Judiciary-Criminal Law Committee in Springfield.