Chicago Contestants Vie for Handguns

April 25, 2002 -- Want to win a gun? If you're at least 21 years old, can pass a criminal background check, and live in Chicago, you qualify for a contest that has law enforcement officials and gun-control supporters shaking their heads.

The gun-rights group Concealed Carry, Inc. of suburban Oak Brook, Ill., wants to give away a gun a month to a Chicago resident starting this month. The catch: A Chicago ordinance bans all handgun possession and punishes offenders with a trip to jail.

Concealed Carry President John Birch, who announced the giveaway on the group's Web site last week, said the contest aims at city residents because of what he calls Chicago's restrictive gun-control laws.

"It's time to level the playing field some. Criminals have been getting a free ride in [Mayor Richard] Daley-land for too long and countless families have paid a terrible price in blood for the mayor's miscalculated and misguided 'disarm the citizens policy,'" reads a statement on the Concealed Carry Web site.

So far, Birch says he has 16 candidates for the giveaway. Applicants are asked to write a few sentences explaining why they need a gun — females win extra points because they have the most to gain from defending themselves, the group says. Concealed Carry members will select the winner based on criteria such as gender, disability, perceived threats to the applicant, finances and whether the applicant already owns a gun.

The winner gets a Kel-Tec P-32 semi-automatic .32-caliber handgun — a 5-inch long pistol intended as a secondary weapon for plainclothes police officers and for concealed carry for licensed citizens, according to its manufacturer. The gun retails for about $300.

City: Pack Heat, Do Time

Birch knows that carrying a gun or keeping one in your home in Chicago breaks city law, and warns applicants of this fact, but points out that violators are not committing felonies.

"It's like a parking ticket," he says.

In media interviews since the giveaway was announced, Chicago law enforcement officials have been trying to convince city residents that violating the city's handgun ordinance is nothing like committing a parking violation. The maximum penalty is six months in jail and a $500 fine, and the lowest penalty is 10 days in jail — and not in a white-collar criminal-type lock-up, said Jennifer Hoyle, spokeswoman for the Chicago Law Department.

"You're talking about Cook County Jail," Hoyle said. "You're going to be in jail with rapists and child molesters. It's not like you're in a local police station's lockup for that time."

Additionally, if you use your car to transport the gun, the city can impound it. And if you carry a concealed weapon, you're also breaking a state law.

For his part, Birch says his aim is to illustrate how ridiculous the city's handgun ban is, and to prove his point he is choosing only "the cream of citizenship" for his gun giveaway. Birch said he would like his first recipient to be a man shot by white supremacist Benjamin Smith in 1999 or a female schoolteacher.

One gun-control group, though, said Birch is luring unsuspecting citizens into a trap of serious legal consequences. "We're sorry John is duping somebody to be the guinea pig for a law when I don't even know if he has the resources to back that up and bail someone out of jail or go to the state Supreme Court or wherever he thinks he is going to take this case," said Kirsten Curley, spokeswoman for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence.

If he does go ahead with the contest, city officials said they would take legal steps to prevent any transactions of guns and would look into whether Birch himself is committing a crime.

"We would argue he would be aiding and abetting a violation of criminal law," Hoyle said.

Asking For a Lawsuit?

The city is in the process of suing suburban gun dealers for knowingly selling weapons to Chicago residents, and could file a similar lawsuit against Concealed Carry if the group gives away guns.

Birch says he has consulted his lawyer and looks forward to a legal showdown with the city. "Bring it on," he said. "The sooner, the better. I admit I might be pushing the edge but that's the idea. You can't get these laws overturned any other way."

Despite some local media hoopla this week, not everyone is convinced that the gun giveaway will ever come to fruition.

City officials cite widespread support of Chicago's gun law, which has been in place since 1982 with no real groundswell of opposition.

Gun-control supporters call the giveaway just the latest of Birch's gun "gimmicks" and predicted the contest would fizzle after a short burst of publicity.

They point to Concealed Carry's attempt last year to get members to carry handguns in fanny packs at the Taste of Chicago festival as a way to take advantage of an apparent legal loophole in the state's concealed weapons law.

The group backed down after publicity surrounding the promotion raised the ire of law enforcement officials, and some members ended up bringing water pistols in their pouches instead. Birch said he didn't want to cause a commotion, just to make a point.