SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — An Illinois Senate committee approved restrictions Wednesday on semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, despite criticism from gun-rights groups that the measures go too far and amount to an assault-weapons ban "on steroids."
Democrats are seeking restrictions in the wake of the school massacre in Connecticut last month and mass shootings in Wisconsin and Colorado last year. They approved the proposals on party-line votes Wednesday, but supporters will have a tougher sell in the full Senate, where downstate Democrats as well as Republicans are more pro-gun.
One measure would ban the possession, delivery, sale and transfer of semiautomatic handguns and rifles. People who currently own such weapons could keep them but would have to register them. The bill would allow semiautomatic weapons to be used at shooting ranges, but those facilities would be regulated.
National Rifle Association lobbyist Todd Vandermyde told lawmakers the bill would restrict about 75 percent of handguns and 50 percent of long guns in circulation today. He also said it would treat law-abiding gun owners like criminals, and is in conflict with Second Amendment rights upheld by the courts.
"I've never seen a piece of legislation that tramples on so many court decisions," Vandermyde said.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Antonio "Tony" Munoz, disagreed.
"For everyone that says that we're taking away their rights, well then go to the range," the Chicago Democrat told members of the Senate Public Health Committee.
The second proposal would limit ammunition magazines and other "ammunition feeding devices" to 10 or fewer rounds. A similar measure received Senate approval in 2007, but the bill's sponsor, Sen. Dan Kotowski, downplayed the idea that a separate effort on shells stood a better chance of passage than the ban on weapons.
"The reason why I'm focusing on that is because (high) magazine capacity has led to the increased lethality and the dangers associated with automatic weapons," the Park Ridge Democrat said.
The proposed curbs on assault weapons took center stage Wednesday night after an expected vote on landmark same-sex marriage legislation hit a snag.
Marriage-equality supporters said the failure to get Senate approval for a procedural measure that would have allowed a committee hearing was a blip and will delay consideration only until Thursday. But it was anticlimactic after a day of pressure on both sides featuring a gay TV star campaigning in favor and more than 1,000 religious leaders, from Catholics to Muslims, signing a letter opposing it.
Gov. Pat Quinn supports both plans and has said he wants a same-sex marriage bill sent to him from the legislative session scheduled through Jan. 9, the final days of the 97th General Assembly. It includes dozens of lame-duck lawmakers who won't be sworn into the next assembly and thus have more freedom to back contentious issues.
Quinn, a Democrat, called for an assault-weapons ban in August after a mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater. But he took the approach — highly unpopular with legislators — of rewriting a fairly innocuous bill covering ammunition purchases, substituting language on semiautomatic weapons.
That failed when the General Assembly voted to override his amendatory veto, but mostly because lawmakers thought Quinn had overstepped his authority.
The gay marriage issue was headed for an Executive Committee hearing before the Senate rejected Sen. Heather Steans' attempt to attach the marriage language to existing legislation. A spokeswoman said Senate Democrats will seek another bill and move forward Thursday.
Steans, a Chicago Democrat, has said she has enough Senate votes for approval of the legislation, which would remove from state law a prohibition on marriage between two people of the same sex. But she also said timing is key because some supporters aren't in attendance yet.
If approved, Illinois would become the 10th state to approve same-sex marriage, a proposal made just 18 months after the state recognized civil unions and one riding momentum from several events including public encouragement from President Barack Obama.
During an appearance Wednesday in Chicago, Jesse Tyler Ferguson of the Emmy-winning series "Modern Family" announced his support alongside his fiance, Justin Mikita, and Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon. Ferguson is a gay actor who, on the ABC comedy, portrays a gay man raising a child with another man.
"I'm looking forward to raising a family with Justin and having our kids grow up in an equal America," Ferguson said. "I had a hard time coming out and certainly had struggles with my parents."
Proponents say the legislation would not impinge on religious beliefs. Religious organizations would not have to recognize or consecrate gay marriage.
But a day after influential Cardinal Francis George of Chicago denounced the idea as going against the "natural order" of traditional marriage, a letter from 1,700 state religious leaders was sent to every Illinois lawmaker deriding claims that the proposal wouldn't interfere with religious freedom.
"The real peril: If marriage is redefined in civil law, individuals and religious organizations — regardless of deeply held beliefs — will be compelled to treat same-sex unions as the equivalent of marriage in their lives, ministries and operations," said the letter, penned by leaders of Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Mormon, Anglican, and Islamic faiths.
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