State Government Illustration

State Government Illustration (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

SPRINGFIELD --- Illinois lawmakers today opened a heated debate on whether an assault weapons ban should be approved, a discussion that featured an early clash between a sheriff's association that opposes the measure and the Chicago police and the Quinn administration that want it.

A hearing before the House Judiciary Committee quickly established the dividing lines on the contentious issue brought to a head today by Speaker Michael Madigan, the Chicago Democrat who has aired out gun issues in several open debates among lawmakers.

"I'm more convinced than ever there is no place for weapons of war in our communities," said Rep. Edward Acevedo, a Chicago police officer who is sponsoring an assault weapons ban.

Acevedo called for Illinois to "take the lead" in putting a prohibition in place rather than waiting for a dysfunctional Washington to enact a federal ban.

"These guns are designed for war," Acevedo said.

Last year, homicides jumped 16 percent in Chicago. Of the more than 7,000 firearms Chicago police took off the streets in 2012, only about 300 would be classified as assault weapons, according to police Superintendent Garry McCarthy. Almost all the rest were handguns.

In addition, the 2011 Chicago Murder Analysis prepared by the Police Department reported that 361 of the city's 433 homicide victims that year were shot, and "nearly all of those shootings involved handguns."

Ranking members of the Chicago Police Department endorsed a ban, saying assault weapons are powerful, accurate at a distance and capable of penetrating bullet-proof vests.

Gun rights lawmakers, however, argued no prohibition is needed.

"We're trying to pass a bill to make us feel good, and it isn't going to do a thing," said Republican Rep. Jim Sacia, a former FBI agent from Pecatonica.

"I deer hunt with an assault weapon," Sacia said.

Greg Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs Association, underscored his group's opposition to a ban, saying more focus should be placed on mental health services and enforcing gun laws on the books.

"New legislation on gun control will never get to the root of the problem," Sullivan said. "And the root of he problem is criminals will always have weapons and the mentally ill will never get the services they need under the current system."

Sullivan acknowledged that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is in disagreement with the group's opposition to a ban.

Illinois State Police Lt. Darrin Clark testified on behalf of the Quinn administration, calling it specifically seeks to "prohibit the sale of firearms designed primarily for he military and law enforcement use."

rlong@tribune.com

raguerrero@tribune.com