Sheriffs say they want no role in enforcing state’s assault weapon registry

By Hannah Meisel For Capitol News Illinois

The head of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association says under the new law it is impossible for local sheriffs to know who in their county owns assault weapons if those gun owners don’t voluntarily comply with the law.

SPRINGFIELD – Dozens of county sheriffs in Illinois — approximately “80-ish,” per Illinois Sheriffs’ Association head Jim Kaitschuck — say they’ll refuse to enforce a provision of a new assault weapons ban that would require owners of such guns to register them with the state.

In the wake of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature Tuesday, Jan. 10 on the law banning the sale and manufacture of assault weapons in Illinois, many sheriffs have written nearly identical letters expressing their unwillingness to enforce the law’s requirement for registering assault-style weapons with the state.

Beginning next year, a gun owner’s failure to provide the state police with the serial numbers for assault-style rifles they own prior to Jan. 1, 2024, will be a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in prison. The degree of charges could increase based on the number of unregistered guns.

But Kaitschuck contended it would be impossible for local sheriffs to know who in their county owns assault weapons if those gun owners don’t voluntarily comply with the law, suggesting it would be ridiculous to go door-to-door to find out.

“We have no inventory of guns bought and sold that are available to local sheriffs,” Kaitschuck said of information partially available to the Illinois State Police. “We don’t have access to it — and I’m not asking for it either, by the way.”

Several gun rights organizations say they are planning to challenge the law in federal court, buoyed by a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision which Second Amendment proponents believe could mean friendlier opinions on firearms-related claims moving forward.

Democrats and advocates who pushed for Illinois to pass the nation’s ninth statewide ban on assault weapons had expected litigation, but on Thursday maintained that unless the law gets struck down, sheriffs’ refusal to enforce any part of it is a dereliction of duty.

Illinois Sheriffs’ Association head Jim Kaitschuck

“They took an oath of office to uphold the law,” Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference. “As law enforcement, that’s their job. And I expect them to do that job. You can have all the resolutions and declarations that you want (but) the reality is that the laws that are on the books, you don’t get to choose which ones people are going to follow.”

But Kaitschuck countered with the common example of police declining to write a ticket to a driver pulled over for driving 10 miles over the speed limit.

“If I pull somebody over for speeding going 65 in a 55, and I don’t write them a ticket, does that mean I’m not enforcing (the law)?” he aked. “And I know we’re talking apples to oranges here, but…my point on this is that officers have discretion. We don’t arrest everybody we could or else our jails would be totally overrun.”

The sheriffs’ letters this week primarily dealt with enforcing the registry portion of the assault weapons law, and Kaitschuck said he wasn’t aware of any sheriffs in his organization who don’t plan on complying with the law’s other provisions, like the ban of sales of assault weapons at Illinois gun shops.

However, Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Harold Krent argued the sheriffs’ letters go beyond what was explicitly stated and said the symbolism of law enforcement officers refusing to comply with state law is a slippery slope.

Krent contrasted the sheriffs’ move with state’s attorneys’ actions surrounding the cashless bail provision of Illinois’ SAFE-T Act, which was supposed to do away with cash bond in Illinois on Jan. 1. Despite grumbling from dozens of state’s attorneys in Illinois, even the staunchest opponents to the law were at least somewhat prepared to comply with it in the new year, at least until the Illinois Supreme Court stayed the law on Dec. 31, pending a full appeal.

“There, (the state’s attorneys) went to court and said, ‘We’re not going to block the process but we want a judicial resolution.’ That’s a norm in our country,” Krent said. “…The General Assembly has decided (the assault weapons ban is) constitutional. The attorney general has decided it’s constitutional. I think it’s an incredible risk for sheriffs to say, ‘We’re not going to enforce a law.’ …because that’s encouraging a lack of respect for the law.”