In Skokie, both sides in handgun issue want a safe community

From the subway stop, the No. 97 bus bounces along the northern border of Chicago. Soon it turns north into Evanston, then heads west again into Skokie. Suburban trees and one-story houses are everywhere. The end of the line is a shopping mall.

No. 97 would be a very routine run - except for one important geographical fact. You might say that the No. 97 bus traverses along one of the sharpest debates in the country - what to do about handguns.

Each of the communities it serves has reached a different conclusion. Evanston enacted an outright handgun ban in 1982, the same year Chicago passed a handgun freeze.

Two weeks ago, Skokie cut across the grain and narrowly rejected a ban. Ironically, it was the same day that the US Supreme Court refused to hear a case about a ban in neighboring Morton Grove, effectively upholding its law.

What happened in Skokie? And why?

Skokie is a quiet town where people keep mostly to themselves. While emotions ran high at village meetings over the handgun issue, a kind of ambivalence reigns on the streets.

''I don't get involved in those things,'' says a resident who's edging a lawn with his shovel as an American flag droops from a flagpole behind him.

''I don't know,'' says Buzz Nelson, a retired Skokie resident a few blocks away. ''A gun in your home is a treacherous situation.'' On the other hand, he says, some people feel the need to protect themselves.

If the reaction in Skokie is any indication, the debate over handguns is not a black-and-white affair.

''Both sides tend to stereotype each other . . . and it's not that simple,'' says Mark Karlin, director of the Committee for the Study of Handgun Misuse in Chicago. There are many conflicting values here.

For example, Jackie Gorell is a Skokie village trustee who cast the deciding ''nay'' in the 4-to-3 vote against the ban.

''Emotionally, I support a ban,'' she said in a telephone interview. But ''I think the thing that pushed me over the edge was the fear of the people.''

When some people see handguns as their peace of mind, she asks, ''how do you take away a security blanket?''

Crime is not the only issue, and neither Skokie nor Morton Grove is a haven for crime anyway. Only Evanston, which is the most urban of the three suburbs, comes close to national averages in federal crime indexes.

''I don't think there's fear of crime,'' says J. Dubrava, a Chicago resident who works in Skokie. ''I think it's fear of government control.''

Every week during the winters, for example, Joel Williams travels to a club in neighboring Lincolnwood for handgun target practice. The Skokie resident doesn't keep his seven handguns or other firearms for protection of his family, he says. It's just sport.

''Personally, I think guns are a problem,'' says Yolanda Statenfeld, another Chicago resident who works in Skokie. But, she adds, ''the one thing that was said here was: How can you enforce the law?''

Perhaps the biggest irony is that both groups in the debate share much more than they might think.

They share elements of fear, says Mr. Karlin, whose biggest concern is violence in the home. He cites federal crime statistics that show that firearms are more likely to be used between people who know each other than between strangers, such as a homeowner and an intruder.

Pro- and anti-ban forces also want the same thing - a safe, secure community, observers say.

''We (both) mean well,'' says Victor Quilici, a lawyer and Skokie resident who challenged the legality of the Morton Grove handgun ban. ''What are we doing on both sides of the field?''

Observers have many answers.

''It's a matter of what people fear the most,'' says Martin Ashman, corporation counsel in Morton Grove.

Others suggest that it comes down to security - and whether people can trust in the collective security of reducing the number of guns or in the individual security of possessing one.

The issue is by no means over. Many residents say they think the ban will come up again in Skokie. Mr. Quilici in Morton Grove has filed another suit in federal district court charging, among other things, that passage of the ban violated citizens' civil rights.

And within the next year the Illinois Supreme Court is expected to decide whether handgun bans are legal under the state constitution.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.