Survivors of mass shootings in 2 Illinois communities voice support for proposed assault weapon ban

CHICAGO — On the surface, Highland Park and East Garfield Park don’t have much in common.

But in the past six months, both the affluent, largely white North Shore suburb and the impoverished, largely Black neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side have been devastated by mass shootings. In both cases, assailants fired into crowds, killing seven and wounding dozens more in Highland Park on the Fourth of July and killing one and injuring 13 others in East Garfield Park on Halloween night.

Two survivors of those shootings — Lauren Bennett, who was shot twice in Highland Park, and Conttina Phillips-Patterson, who was shot in the leg in East Garfield Park — were among those voicing support Monday for a proposal from Illinois House Democrats to ban the sale of certain assault-style guns and large-capacity magazines and to bar most people under 21 from getting gun permits.

Bennett and Phillips-Patterson shared their stories during the first of three planned hearings on the measure, which House Democrats hope to pass when they return to Springfield for a brief lame-duck session just after the new year. Gun rights advocates are expected to testify at a future hearing.

The two women were joined at the hearing by gun safety advocates and medical experts who also testified in support of the ban. Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker last week said he wants the House and Senate to send legislation to his desk before the anniversary of the Highland Park shooting.

While Democrats control the General Assembly, whether they can move such a politically charged proposal through both chambers in the few scheduled days before a new set of lawmakers is sworn in Jan. 11 remains uncertain. Gun control measures have a history of breaking down along regional as well as partisan lines, and top Democrats in the Senate have yet to weigh in publicly.

Testifying before a House committee Monday, Bennett described gathering with her husband and her two youngest sons, ages 6 and 9, along with her parents and in-laws, for the annual Independence Day parade, a family tradition going back to her husband’s childhood.

Then, “literally out of the clear blue sky,” bullets began raining down from what authorities would later identify as a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 rifle equipped with high-capacity ammunition magazines.

The alleged shooter, Robert Crimo III, legally purchased the gun and ammunition, despite a history of making threatening statements, after his father gave consent for him to get a state firearm owner’s identification card at the age of 19.

“Within the first few seconds, while most people were unaware of what was happening, I was hit for the first time,” Bennett told committee members. “I felt a tight shock in my back and hip and saw my entire lower left side was bleeding. I knew right then we were under attack.”

Bennett, who is among a group of survivors suing the alleged shooter’s father, two firearm dealers and Smith & Wesson over the shooting, recounted being shot again in the upper back as she fled and watching her husband shield their sons as they “dodged bullets (and) jumped over fallen bodies while running behind me, looking at my blood-soaked body.”

“My family and I learned on that violent and traumatic day that we are all constantly in the line of fire, and until we (all) realize this, so shall we remain,” Bennett said.

Like Bennett, Phillips-Patterson was with family members when someone opened fire on a group that had gathered near California Avenue and Polk Street on Oct. 31 to mourn a relative who’d died of an illness.

Authorities say two people fired from a dark SUV and drove off. While no weapon was recovered, police found four types of shell casings at the scene, some coming from a rifle.

Phillips-Patterson suffered a broken bone and was left with a damaged nerve in her leg. Several of those injured in the shooting were children, including one who was just 3 years old. One man who was shot died four days later.

While she supports banning the types of weapons covered in the legislation being considered, Phillips-Patterson said lawmakers need to do more to address violence involving all types of guns.

“Something just needs to be done with all guns — not just the ones shooting 30 times, the ones shooting one time,” Phillips-Patterson said. “Because that one bullet, no matter how big or small, can still kill you.”

Several speakers at Monday’s hearing noted how the outpouring of support for Highland Park in the wake of the Fourth of July stood in contrast to the reaction to shootings in East Garfield Park and other communities in Chicago and across Illinois that experience gun violence on a more regular basis, often with few resources to address the factors that contribute to violence or the trauma that results from it.

State Rep. Bob Morgan, a Deerfield Democrat who was marching in the Highland Park parade when the shooting occurred and is sponsoring the House proposal, said lawmakers “should all be ashamed that we haven’t taken action sooner.”

“It shouldn’t take a mass shooting for us to have the political courage to do what needs to be done,” Morgan said at a new conference before the hearing.

Morgan’s legislation also aims to strengthen the state’s red-flag law by extending the period someone can be barred from possessing a gun from six months to a year and by giving local prosecutors a greater role in the process. It also would require people who already own the types of weapons that could no longer be sold in Illinois to register them with the state.

Gun-rights advocates have been vocal in their opposition to Morgan’s proposal. In a post on its website Monday, the Illinois State Rifle Association labeled Morgan’s legislation “the ‘Surrender to Criminals who Don’t Follow the Law’ Act.” In an accompanying video, the group’s vice president, David Lombardo, called the measure “an arrogant, boldfaced lie to the public.”

“It won’t protect squat, but the radical leftists in Springfield aren’t interested in protecting your family,” Lombardo said. “They’re only interested in subjugating those individuals who think independently and dislike the radical agenda they’re shoving down our throats.”