U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, has assembled an advisory gun task force one week before the U.S. Senate is set to debate some of the most sweeping firearms restrictions in 20 years.
"The whole reason that I wanted to do this is because I wanted to hear from a wide array of constituents across the district," Enyart said during a teleconference last week.
Enyart said the task force -- which consists of eight volunteers drawn from careers in law enforcement, education and mental health -- is based on the idea of a "productive dialog where we talk as neighbors and friends. ... I'm kind of considering this like a big dinner table conversation."
Task force member Milton Wharton, a retired St. Clair County court judge, sought to dispel the idea that new gun restrictions represent "an attack on guns, period, which it is not. The effort right now is to see if we can prevent some of the tragedies that have occurred that we are all familiar with. ..."
Enyart assembled the task force nearly four months after the massacre in Newtown, Conn., where on Dec. 14 gunman Adam Lanza used a legally purchased assault rifle to attack a grade school, killing 20 first-graders and six teachers and staff members before killing himself.
In response to the Newtown slaughter, President Barack Obama has made gun control legislation a top priority of his second term.
The U.S. Senate, after two months of hearings, has responded with a package of measures that call for expanded background checks, tougher penalties against illegal gun trafficking, greater school security and -- and most controversially -- the banning of weapons like the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle and extra-capacity bullet magazines that Lanza used to murder his victims.
The Senate is set to begin debate on the restrictions April 8 after the lawmakers return from a two-week recess.
The proposals include expanded background checks and grants for school security, and a measure sponsored by Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, and Mark Kirk, R-Highland Park, to deter "straw" buyers from obtaining guns for criminal purposes.
Recent public opinion surveys show strong support for these measures, a shift in public sentiment tied directly to the Newtown massacre.
A majority of Americans -- 52 percent -- reported they are now "more likely to support some forms of gun control," according to a January Washington Post/ABC News poll.
What's more, 44 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Americans in gun-owning households indicated they are "more likely" to back tougher gun laws, while only 5 percent said that they are less likely to support them, according to the poll.
But the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress are already organizing a counter-attack.
Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are among a handful of senators who have already announced they will try to filibuster the new restrictions into oblivion.
And even if the Senate gun proposals survive the filibuster attempt, they will encounter tough resistance from the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, whose leadership has made no secret of their opposition.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, declined to comment specifically about the Senate measures until he sees what reaches the House. But he echoed many of the criticisms that the NRA and other groups have already voiced about new gun laws.
"There's no one addressing the mental health side of these things," said Davis, whose district includes parts of Edwardsville and Collinsville. "I want to see the discussion on mental illness and what type of impact that is having on those who commit these senseless crimes with no guilt complex. I want to see what the experts think about societal factors" -- such as violent video games.
Members of Enyart's gun task force expressed skepticism about other proposed gun restrictions, such as placing limits on the size of bullet magazines.
Lanza carried 10 30-round magazines into Sandy Hook Elementary School, enabling him to fire 154 rounds in less than five minutes, Connecticut law enforcement officials said.
But Bennie Vick, the Williamson County sheriff, took issue with attempts to limit the size of bullet magazines.
"I can change a magazine in a second-and-half," Vick said during the teleconference. "If someone wants to kill people they'll train to change a magazine."
Task force member and gun owner Gary Gaines, who spent 36 years as a security officer at U.S. Steel in Granite City, confessed to strong feelings on both sides of the gun control issue. On one hand, he doesn't want to surrender his weapons, he said.
"On the other hand, I feel we have reached a crisis in this nation and we have to do something, at least some step," Gaines said.
For its part, the NRA looks forward to working with Congress to find a solution to gun violence, said Stephanie Samford, an NRA spokeswoman.
"The focus should be on prosecuting criminals," Samford said. "We can't make more laws if we're not enforcing the ones that we currently have."
Samford declined to comment directly on any of the measures the Senate is preparing to debate.
Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, in Washington, D.C., said stronger gun laws are a matter of time, based on public opinion surveys.
The American public passed a turning point with the January 2011 shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six people, and gravely wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords, Rand said.
"Prior to Tucson, it didn't get people's attention," Rand said. "But people started getting fed up after Tucson."
After the July 2012 shooting rampage in Aurora, Colo., which killed 12 people and wounded 58, "We knew that whatever the next big shooting was, it was going to be a major shift," Rand said. "We would never have known it was going to be of the magnitude of Newtown."
The political calculus is also changing. Members of Congress once worried only about the downside of opposing the NRA. Now they must also worry about the downside of opposing deep-pocket gun control advocates, such as Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York City, who is personally bankrolling a $12 million TV ad campaign to nudge senators in key states into supporting gun control measures.
"And that will be counterbalance to the NRA," Rand said. "We'll see how that plays out."
The NRA's opposition to any new gun laws stems in large part from the financial woes of the gun industry, a major NRA sponsor, Rand said.
With fewer Americans than ever identified as hunters, "Overall the gun industry is not very healthy," she said. "All what's selling is assault rifles and conceal carry handguns. Which is why they're fighting so hard to make Illinois a conceal carry state -- because they want to sell more conceal carry handguns."
But resistance to new gun laws isn't strictly about corporate profits, either, Rand said.
"For a lot of people their guns are their lives," she said. "It gives them a sense of power. And that's what they live for ... And that's why they fight so hard."
Below is a list of the members of the advisory gun task force assembled by U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville:
* Milton Wharton, retired circuit judge of the 20th Judicial Circuit
* Ben Brown, O'Fallon, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel
* Michele Cowell, Belleville, advocate for veterans' mental health care
* Bennie Vick, sheriff of Williamson County
* Mark Rohlfing, principal of Pinckneyville Junior High School
* Deb West, Waterloo, licensed professional clinical counselor and NRA firearms instructor
* Gary Gaines, Granite City, security officer
* Tom Little, West Frankfort, retired Illinois State Police officer
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2533.