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A spray of fire

Monday, March 27, 2006
Chicago Tribune

Starkesia Reed and Siretha White were cut down by stray bullets in sprays of gunfire. Their murders, in recent incidents just days and blocks apart in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, were stunning.

Police say an AK-47 assault rifle converted to automatic use was used in the killing of 14-year-old Starkesia. It is not yet clear what weapon is to blame in the death of 10-year-old Siretha; investigators believe it may have been a pistol equipped with a large ammunition magazine.

These killings underscore the need to restrict assault weapons--and why such efforts are immensely frustrating. If Illinois were to impose a ban on the sale of such weapons, it wouldn't be hard to get around it. The gang member charged with killing Starkesia Reed bought an AK-47 in Indiana, which doesn't require a firearm owner's card. It's the same kind of weapon used in her murder, though that Indiana purchase has not yet been linked to the crime.

Nevertheless, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Mayor Richard Daley and others have renewed a campaign for a state ban on assault weapons. They're on the right track.

Congress let a federal ban on 19 kinds of semiautomatic assault weapons expire in 2004. Blagojevich and Daley hope to generate momentum to pass a state ban on such weapons in the final days of the legislative session.

Let's acknowledge up front that a state ban might well not have spared the two girls from Englewood. Their killers could fairly easily have gotten the weapons in a neighboring state, legally or illegally.

Does that mean a state law is a bad idea? No.

The use of semiautomatic weapons in crimes declined while there was a federal ban, but Congress made the callous decision to let that ban expire. So the effort to restrict these weapons has to proceed elsewhere.

Seven states have passed such bans, and Illinois should be the eighth.

The gun lobby beat back an effort to implement a ban in Illinois last year and appeared to have bottled up a similar measure in this year's legislature as well. The gun lobby has promised to make political trouble for politicians who vote for gun-control laws.

And that probably worries the many fence-sitters in the Illinois House and Senate. The gun lobby seems to have more sway in Springfield than do the vast number of Illinois citizens who support a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons. The legislators need to hear from them.

Sponsors of a ban hope public anger over the latest killings will change the political dynamic. If a ban is passed, it will be named in honor of Starkesia Reed and Siretha White.

That won't happen unless skittish legislators hear from their constituents. You do have a louder voice than the gun lobby, but only if you use it.

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