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Q&A: Bloomington's new state Rep. Dan Caulkins talks about gun control, SAFE-T Act, and post-election resignations

Dan Caulkins
State Rep. Dan Caulkins, a Republican from Decatur, now represents parts of south and east Bloomington too.

Those living on Bloomington’s south and east side have a new state representative representing them in Springfield.

His name is Dan Caulkins, a Republican from Decatur. He’s represented parts of rural McLean County before. But after Democrats redrew Illinois' political maps, Caulkins' new 88th House District now includes parts of Bloomington too.

Caulkins is part of the conservative Illinois Freedom Caucus, which touts itself as advocates for limited government, lower taxes and accountability and integrity in government. And after the election, Caulkins is now part of an even smaller Republican super-minority in Democrat-controlled Springfield.

In this interview with WGLT, Caulkins talks about a range of policy issues, including recent tweaks to the SAFE-T Act, a proposed assault-style weapons ban, and ethics reform.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

WGLT: What did you think of the most recent changes to the SAFE-T Act that were just signed into law?

Caulkins: The changes that were made I think are beneficial. They don't go far enough to solve some of the other substantive issues. But this is the first trailer bill that's actually, I think, going to have a positive effect. There are just a lot of things in this bill that aren't going to work. We're going to find out, you know, in January, February and March, just how chaotic our criminal justice system will become.

What was beneficial in this trailer bill that you liked?

Well, there were a couple of things off the top of my head.

One, they clarified the trespassing issue that everyone was very concerned about. And that now is going to give law enforcement an opportunity, if they think that there is a danger, to remove the trespasser.

The other is that they've included several -- I'm not a lawyer -- several crimes that can be detained, that before were going to just be released.

There's still some ambiguity about the difference between a robbery and a burglary, that unfortunately the Democrats don't seem to understand the difference, legal definitions, so that's going to need to be cleared up. And there's some other things that are going to happen.

And financially, most fines and court costs are paid out of the bond money that’s put up. And it's kind of a way, first of all, to ensure people come back to court, but it also ensures the community that the fines and court costs are going to be paid. And when we don't have that vehicle anymore, I think it's going to make it a lot more difficult to collect on these expenses, which if we can't collect on it, it only goes one place. And that's the property tax bill.

Illinois lawmakers are now potentially looking at a ban on the sale and ownership of assault-style weapons. This piece of legislation, called the Protect Illinois Communities Act, was recently introduced. What do you think of the assault-style weapons ban part of this legislation?

Well, I believe this whole thing is unconstitutional. And will be proven that in court. I'm not optimistic at all that people will come to their senses or that the Democrats in the General Assembly even consider or care that much.

But I’ll my political consultant hat on for a second: I believe this is part of Gov. Pritzker’s platform to run for president – an assault weapons ban that the Democrat base nationally wants, and he's going to do it in Illinois. And I don't think they care that it will be overturned in court. I think the optics of it, having done it, are going to be enough for him. And it will be one of the platforms that he'll run on for president next year.

Do you have concerns about the public's ability to buy AR-15-type weapons at this moment?

That's a good question. Because we've seen some folks get their hands on long guns, semiautomatic rifles.

But truthfully, the vast majority of the murders that have been committed in Chicago, Cook County, almost anywhere else, are all done with handguns. They're easily concealed and easily wielded. We have seen mass shootings with semiautomatic rifles by deranged people. And that, to me is something that we need to look at.

We have the ability to tag those people that need mental help, and those are the things we ought to focus on.

Making it harder? It's already hard. Everyone that buys a semiautomatic rifle -- any weapon for that matter -- goes through a background check through the FBI. Illinois, we filter that through the Illinois State Police before it gets to the FBI, and then it goes to the FBI. And there's a waiting period. You can't walk into any other gun store and buy a semiautomatic anything. You can't buy any kind of a weapon and walk out with it. In Illinois, it's not possible. So we have the ability to screen purchasers. We have the ability. Every day I know the Illinois State Police runs background checks on every FOID card. And if a FOID card holder gets arrested for something that is a disqualifier, the Illinois State Police will know that as soon as that case is filed, and then have the ability to go out and revoke the FOID card and confiscate the weapons and ammunition.

We have a lot of tools in Illinois, and everything that's being proposed is not going to affect the criminal. It's going to affect the law-abiding citizen, and this new bill will make criminals out of every FFL, every gun store, and every firearm owner in Illinois -- will immediately become a criminal, the day that bill is signed.

That net of protections that you just described – background checks, State Police being able to flag people – doesn't it seem to you that people are still slipping through those protections as they currently exist? And wouldn't that suggest that different types of protections are needed? The Highland Park shooter, for example, slipped through that net, as you described it.

And Highland Park has a ban on semiautomatic rifles. And I don't know what this new bill would do to stop that.

Paul Pelosi was attacked with a hammer. There's no end to what ifs. I think that we have some serious problems in this country, mental health problems, that we're supposed to be able to flag and keep those people from owning any kind of weapon being a rifle, a pistol or a shotgun. And it's not worked. I just don't think that enacting another law that makes law-abiding citizens criminals is going to make criminals turn in their guns.

You mentioned the Paul Pelosi attack. But there have not been a lot of mass hammer attacks at grocery stores or schools or places like that. Guns and hammers are pretty different beasts, right?

Well, they are. But I guess the point that I was trying to make was that deranged people who are intent on wreaking havoc, injuring someone, will find a way to do it. I mean, we had the students in Idaho all stabbed to death in their beds, in their house.

You’ve mentioned the importance of vigorously enforcing the laws that do exist. One of them I wanted to ask about was Illinois’ red flag law. It’s been on the books now for a couple of years, but it is barely used. Is that the type of law that you would like to see used more often?

That type, perhaps. The problem with the current red flag laws are that it denies due process. I think if we were able to afford the accused due process before we take action that could ruin them, confiscate their property … that’s a double-edged sword. We're the generation that if you see something, say something. We're not really the generation if you see something, do something anymore, because of lawsuits and fear of retribution.

It's something that's available. I don't like the way it's currently written. But I think if we were able to protect the rights of the accused, I think people might even be more willing to say something.

Let’s pivot to the makeup of the General Assembly. Lots of new faces. State Sen. Jason Barickman just announced plans to resign in a district that also includes parts of Bloomington-Normal. For that particular state senate district, do you have a candidate or a type of candidate in mind that you would like to see appointed to that seat?

Tom Bennett, our state rep, has expressed an interest in that seat. I think he is eminently qualified. He served, I think, in the House three terms now. He’s a good conservative. Well thought of thinker. He's very active in his district. Obviously, been re-elected. I think with without a challenge. I don't think he had an opponent in the last election or maybe two.

Problem is, I say this kind of jokingly, he needs a driver. Poor guy has had two crashes in two years. But part of that's because he worked so hard. I mean, he's up and he's out and he's working in his district day after day, and sometimes he just overworks himself.

But I think Tom Bennett would be an excellent candidate.

This is the second Central Illinois Republican that we've had resign soon after winning re-election. Barickman, and before him, Tim Butler out of Springfield. Did you have any concerns with the timing of their announcements, about voters being asked to cast ballots for candidates who kind of know they're on their way out?

Yes is the short answer.

Particularly with Rep. Butler, who is going to retire from the house on the 31st of this month, and on Jan. 1 takes a job as a lobbyist. (He’ll be president of the Illinois Railroad Association trade group.)

We've been working very hard on ethics reform. And I don't blame him for taking advantage of the rules as they exist. But we've been fighting hard to try to change this revolving door. So maybe, hopefully, this might induce some people in the in the General Assembly to take a look at that.

Your new district is the 88th House District, which now includes several parts of Bloomington-Normal, basically south and east Bloomington. What are your plans to get to know these new parts of your district?

Well, it's a bit of a challenge, but not nothing that we can overcome. I'm very, very active in the last five years in my current 101st House District, which is included parts of McLean County. We've been very active with the McLean County Republican Party, doing events. I've been on campus ISU for legislative days, I've been involved in the local human services, consortium roundtables. But we're going to be out hopefully this spring doing town halls, being in neighborhoods. We've got some have friends that we've made along the way. We're looking forward to getting up to Colfax as well and doing what I should be doing. And that's meeting with our constituents and offering to help them navigate the system as it is. And representing them as best I can in Springfield.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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