By Michael Higgins
Tribune Staff Writer
November 28, 2000
A growing number of registered Illinois gun owners believe they’ve found a legal loophole that allows them to carry concealed handguns and ammunition in public, tucked in specially designed fanny packs.
Fanny pack proponents say the trendy gun pouches, some of which are designed to look like day planners or cell phone cases, are a breakthrough for personal security. Gun control activists see their use as a legalistic ploy that threatens public safety.
Legal experts, police and prosecutors are debating the novel gun-law interpretation, which has gained adherents—and critics—across the state in a matter of months.
The fanny pack advocates have latched on to a long-standing clause in state law that permits a registered owner to carry a gun that is unloaded and “enclosed in a case … or other container.” The idea that specially designed fanny packs meet that standard has not been tested in court, and the question is apparently unique to Illinois, one of only seven states that bar most people from carrying concealed firearms.
It is both a strange new wrinkle in the ongoing struggle over guns in society and a twist on the use of fanny packs, formerly associated with such innocuous cargo as car keys, diaper wipes and light snacks.
Christopher Morley of Forest Park believes his new fanny pack is essential to his safety: If threatened, he can unzip the pack that rests on his hip, pull out his .45-caliber Glock pistol, slap in the ammunition clip and shoot, all in a few seconds.
“I basically make it a habit never to leave the house without my gun and my fanny pack,” said Morley, a 33-year-old advertising designer. Police “do tend to zoom in on the fanny pack. But I’ve never been stopped.”
Morley is a member of Concealed Carry Inc. of Oak Brook, one of the groups promoting the use of fanny packs as gun cases. That group and the Champaign County Rifle Association said they are sending letters to police chiefs around the state, telling them about what they perceive as a “de facto permit to carry” a concealed weapon.
On the home turf of the Champaign County Rifle Association, Urbana police say the statute is ambiguous enough that they’ve decided against making arrests for now. If officers encounter somebody with a gun in a fanny pack, they will note the incident and leave any decision on charges up to prosecutors.
“Our policy is that we’ll write a report and we’ll see whether the state’s attorney brings charges or not, because [the law] is arguable both ways,” Lt. James Page said.
Other law enforcement officials are prepared to take action.
The gun-case exception to the concealed-weapon ban was meant for people on their way to the shooting range, said Lt. William Schneider of the Des Plaines Police Department, not fanny packers.
“I’m pretty sure we would charge them,” he said. “I would say they’re taking a risk.”
“The fanny packs are basically like holsters” and probably not at all what the legislature had in mind when it demanded that guns be put in a case, said Cmdr. Tom Murphy of the Palatine Police Department.
A spokesman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office said lawyers there are prepared to prosecute gun owners who carry firearms—loaded or unloaded—concealed in fanny packs. The law “means that you can transport a gun from one place to another, not carry the gun around like a pistol in a holster in the Wild West,” John Gorman, the spokesman, said.
Both the Illinois State Police and the attorney general’s office declined to discuss the fanny pack issue. Few court decisions on record in Illinois involve cases for carrying guns and none settles the fanny pack issue directly, experts say. And until a pertinent case arises, many agencies will not offer an opinion on how a hypothetical case might be handled.
Gun owners stress that their fanny packs are not like the flimsy nylon packs that people use to carry wallets, or even like a purse or gym bag.
These fanny packs usually feature holster pouches or straps inside the pack, designed to cradle a handgun. Many gun owners believe the design of these pouches allows them to meet the legal definition for a gun case.
“The fanny pack is nothing more than a case—a case for a firearm that meets the state law,” said Richard Pearson, president of the Illinois State Rifle Association. Although the association does not actively promote the use of fanny packs, Pearson said the interpretations by the Champaign County Rifle Association and Concealed Carry are correct.
Gun owners must check their local ordinances before assuming they can carry a concealed gun legally in a fanny pack, he said.
In Chicago, local law bans possession of a handgun in almost all cases, said Jennifer Hoyle, spokeswoman for the city’s law department. There is a limited exception that allows someone who lives outside the city to transport a gun through the city in a vehicle, if the gun is in a non-functioning state. But merely keeping the gun unloaded wouldn’t make it legal, Hoyle said.
“In Chicago, you can’t have it on your person like that,” Hoyle said.
Hoyle said it would be up to police to decide whether to arrest someone with an unloaded gun in a fanny pack.
Nationwide, 29 states allow non-felons to carry concealed handguns. Another 14 states allow residents to apply for permission to carry a concealed weapon.
Illinois’ law was intended to be more restrictive, experts say. But the “gun case” exemption muddies the waters and makes it difficult to predict how courts might rule on the fanny packs.
Pat Reardon, a criminal defense lawyer who also teaches at John Marshall Law School, said the law was “poorly worded.” He said that as a practical matter, he would not advise a gun owner to treat a fanny pack as a gun case, at least not in Cook County.
“I think a judge [in Cook County] would consider that more of a pocket or a purse than he would a gun container,” Reardon said.
But David Meyer, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, said that under a common legal rule, ambiguity in criminal statutes tend to be resolved in favor of the accused.
“As it stands now, my guess is the courts would be inclined to construe it in favor of people carrying concealed weapons,” he said.
Jack Rimland, president of the Illinois Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that although he personally favors gun control laws, he believes the fanny pack carriers may have found a valid exception to the concealed-weapon law.
That exception has been Illinois law for at least 18 years. But gun advocates say the provision went largely unnoticed until last spring, when the legislature put the same language into the state’s new gun law, the Safe Neighborhoods Act. This time around, gun advocates paid attention, and some began to carry concealed weapons.
Steve Rainbolt, a 29-year-old computer consultant from Lake in the Hills, started using one of the packs this summer.
He said he carries it mostly on weekends, for example, “If I’m going out to a restaurant or to a mall—basically anywhere I feel I may end up having to defend myself or my family.”
Ken Lally, 45, of Lockport takes his gun and fanny pack on his commute to Blue Island, where he is a maintenance mechanic at a chemical factory.
“For 20 years before that, I just carried the damn thing loaded and stuck it in my belt,” Lally said. Now, he’s “trying to be a little more legal. … It’s not as quick as a regular holster would be. I guess it’s the best we can hope for in this state.”
John Boch, vice chair of the Champaign County Rifle Association, said he carries his fanny pack practically everywhere except for places such as schools and liquor stores where guns are specifically prohibited.
“It’s very discreet,” said Boch, who does public relations work for police unions. “Ninety-nine people out of 100 have no idea that fanny packs are made for carrying firearms.”
Morley, the advertising man, said having a weapon is important because he has cerebral palsy and uses a cane. He said he was mugged twice before he carried a gun. Since he armed himself, he said, he has scared away two potential assailants by grabbing for his gun, but he has never fired it.
“I know that as a disabled person, I am a preferred victim,” he said.
Gun control advocates say even suggesting the idea of carrying a gun in a fanny pack is irresponsible.
“I think they’re … inviting people to break the law,” said Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence in Washington, D.C.
“Anytime you introduce a gun into a tense situation, you are increasing the risk of lethal violence.”