Roll Call: Has concealed carry made us safer or led to rising gun violence?

Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel will retire in May after serving the community for 38 years, the last 13 as chief.

I’m sure you have seen numerous media reports and social media postings regarding violent gun crime. Or you may have personally experienced a violent gun crime or know somebody who has.

Why have some people decided that even minor disputes must be settled by firing a gun? When did the consequences of those actions no longer matter?

Let us revisit the origins of this issue in Illinois with the Concealed Carry Act. Illinois was the final state to permit concealed carry for handguns. Wisconsin had just passed similar legislation and there was immense pressure on Illinois to follow suit.

The act eventually was passed in 2013 after one of the most intense debates I have ever witnessed within the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. I attended two particularly heated meetings on whether the association should support, remain neutral or oppose the proposed legislation.

I served on the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police legislative committee for years and I can tell you, without a doubt, that these meetings were so contentious that chiefs got up, walked out of the room and left. At times, there was significant debate that escalated into some yelling and screaming. Almost all chiefs from the metropolitan Chicago area opposed supporting the Concealed Carry Act, while almost all chiefs in central or southern Illinois endorsed concealed carry, as did the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association.

Why do I mention this? It’s because this was the beginning of the journey toward concealed carry in Illinois. The legislators were pushing hard for the Illinois chiefs to shift their stance from opposition to at least neutrality or support and they succeeded. After much debate, the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police took a neutral position. I was adamantly against this and made my stance clear, lobbying against concealed carry. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful. So now concealed carry in Illinois is legal and the question remains: “Are we safer?”

There is no doubt that we have had more gun violence over the past several years due to either higher crime rates or perceived higher crime rates and the explosion of violent crime. There is no question that violent crime in the greater Chicago metropolitan area is increasing and the fear of crime is enormous.

More individuals are carrying their weapons with them everywhere they go. You have undoubtedly seen concealed-carry permit holders at grocery stores, parks, shopping malls and other venues. While the state of Illinois can restrict access to specific venues to concealed carry holders, this is often disregarded and they come in with the guns anyway.

Road rage incidents in which handguns are displayed or fired have been on the rise. Minor disputes, which were once only verbal or led to some type of physical altercation, have become instances of displaying and shooting handguns. There was a time, at least here in Illinois, when gun violence was not commonplace. That time has passed.

So how did we get here? It would be best if we started by looking at the family. Every child should grow up with some mentoring, role model or morale/ethics from their parents, grandparents or caretakers. In many families this is just not happening anymore.

Acts of violent crime could be minimized early on with better family support and guidance. It would be best if we had good parents instructing their children all along the path of life that human life is sacred. Sadly, there is minimal regard for human life in some of these violent criminal acts involving gunfire.

Some individuals shoot indiscriminately or they target individuals. Domestic shootings and homicides have skyrocketed and random attacks by individuals who believe they are being threatened also has increased.

This escalation of violent crime with a handgun has increased because we have concealed carry laws in Illinois. Let’s face it, if individuals were not carrying handguns, we would not have an escalation of handgun violence. That does not mean that individuals do not have a right to protect themselves, but those incidents are exceedingly rare.

The police are not the answer to the overall reduction of gun violence. While the police play a vital role in the apprehension, investigation and processing of a gun crime through the court system, police play no role in whether an individual is carrying a firearm illegally or legally. That decision was made long before the police got involved. It is not the job of the police to say whether you can or cannot carry a firearm.

Another major factor in gun violence is the perceived view of the amount of crime in a specific neighborhood. Individuals will carry their firearms under lawful means in Illinois to protect themselves. But that does not prevent a gun from being used in any situation, not just when needed to defend a life or a family member’s life. A simple traffic dispute, a battery, quickly can escalate to a gun being fired and another tragedy splashes across the front page of the newspapers. Those are the facts.

Recently, I walked into a coffee shop in New Mexico and was the fourth person in line to get my coffee. The first three individuals standing in front of me, all males, had a firearm strapped to their hip. In New Mexico, they have open carry. If you have never seen that before, it is shocking. The individuals I saw had what you would consider an old gunslinger belt and holster around their waist with a revolver strapped to the hip. If you live in a state where open carry is not the norm, this will set you back.

I do believe in responsible gun ownership, but the Concealed Carry Act in Illinois is certainly debatable. While it is the law here now, and we must deal with it, there is still much debate. While I am a strong proponent of being able to defend yourself, I am hopeful that in Illinois we can find a better way than pulling out a gun in every situation, whether it is a minor dispute, traffic altercation or a perceived threat.

Protecting yourself in your home or on your property is a separate issue and I agree you have the absolute right to defend yourself and your family in your home. Once that weapon comes out in a public place, however, significant tragedies can happen and will continue to happen.

• Tom Weitzel was chief of the Riverside Police Department. Follow him @chiefweitzel.