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Over some Democrats’ objections, Cook County Board approves a property tax break for south suburban gun club
Monday, October 05, 2020 Chicago Tribune by Alice Yin
A south suburban gun club stands to receive a Cook County property tax incentive under a resolution the Board of Commissioners recently approved, but divisions remain over whether — during an especially violent year — it’s appropriate to give a financial break to a business where patrons buy and shoot firearms.
Before the board passed the incentive at its September meeting, Commissioner Larry Suffredin said he could not support taxpayer money helping out the Eagle Gun Club LLC, 5900 W. 159th St. in Oak Forest.
“Tax incentives are granted as a privilege to businesses that are to be developing our society,” Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat and longtime gun control advocate, said at the meeting. “I do not believe, with the violence that we have in the hospital that we run and the issues we’ve been dealing with in our court system, that we should be giving tax incentives to gun dealers.”
Commissioner Sean Morrison, a Palos Park Republican, retorted that helping out the gun range “supports the Second Amendment, which is protected by our Constitution, and we should never single out any independent business that qualifies otherwise.”
The resolution prevailed in an 11-5 vote with one commissioner marked as present, meaning the gun club’s property will be assessed at 10% of its market value instead of the usual 25% for a decade, so long as the club follows the assessor’s office’s terms. Based on the property’s $3.6 million market value in 2019, such a tax incentive aimed to help areas of “severe economic stagnation” could have theoretically saved the business roughly $245,000 if it were applied this year.
Cook County Board members approved the same tax break for Eagle Gun Club in April regarding an adjacent property.
Eagle Gun Club officials did not respond to emails or phone calls seeking comment. The business’s website and Facebook page advertise it as a destination for firearm education classes, shooting range practice and gun purchases. The website describes the business as “One of the Largest Gun Shops in the Midwest.”
Constitutional experts differ on whether denying the incentive would have run up against the Second Amendment. Rejecting the tax break on the grounds that it is a shooting range could be problematic, but the verdict would come down to how the governing body phrased its objection, said Steven Schwinn, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago John Marshall Law School.
“What we would be concerned about is whether the commission’s decision was based upon the fact that this was protected Second Amendment activity or whether it was based upon some other neutral criteria,” Schwinn said. “Declining to extend the tax exemption because this is a place where people shoot guns, I mean that raises some red flags.”
But a rebuff for public safety reasons might be a stronger defense, Duke University law professor Joseph Blocher said. That’s because a government usually has wide discretion when it comes to tax incentives that are not entitlements.
“If the stated grounds for denying the tax incentive were simply, with nothing else, hostility towards guns or gun ranges, then it’s easy to imagine a kind of a constitutional problem,” Blocher said. “But if what the commissioners are doing is saying, ‘We don’t want to support, incentivize activities that we think are threatening to public safety,’ then it’s not so clearly a problem that the Constitution cares about.”
Suffredin along with two other commissioners who voted against the incentive told the Tribune their reasoning had nothing to do with the Second Amendment but with Cook County gun violence. This year’s number of gun-related homicides is up by more than 40% compared with the same period in 2019, according to the medical examiner’s database.
“There’s a moral context to everything we pass and that relates to tax policy as well,” Commissioner Scott Britton, D-Glenview, said over the phone. “What moral issue is supported by giving a tax incentive to a gun range? It’s exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.”
Morrison said he sees less correlation between firearm dealers and the mounting gun violence in the county. Commissioners should not be discerning among types of businesses when it comes to tax breaks, he said, and to do so when guns become involved is “placating to the base.”
“What you were seeing there, I think, was political theater that just got a little bit too far,” Morrison said about Suffredin’s comments. “A well-operated business that sells firearms has nothing to do with the gangs that are killing themselves within Chicagoland and our lack of prosecution and our lack of judicial sentencing.”
Much of the county’s human toll of gun violence can be witnessed at what some call the “Bermuda Triangle of Cook County” — West Ogden and South Damen avenues, Suffredin said. That’s where one can stand and see Stroger Hospital, where bullet wounds are treated; the medical examiner’s office, where the bodies of those killed in shootings are autopsied; and the juvenile courthouse, where some gun trials take place.
In Suffredin’s view, local gun dealers are at least partly the source of that crisis, whether they intend to be or not.
“You have straw purchasers, you have people who say their guns were stolen, you have all kind of ways that these guns get into the underground economy and then end up being used to hurt people,” Suffredin said. “That’s why I just can’t — I don’t want to be part of giving a tax break to a business that I believe adds to that burden.”