Julie Morrison was elected to the Illinois Senate in 2012. Each year since then, she has taken part in the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, which is in her district. This year, she was a block from the spot where a sniper killed seven paradegoers. Morrison and her family and volunteers were unhurt, but she declared shortly afterward that she would never again put them at risk by asking them to march in a parade. In the weeks that followed, Morrison, who is from neighboring Deerfield, cosponsored a statewide assault weapons ban proposed by Omar Aquino, a state senator from Chicago and a fellow Democrat, and traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for a federal ban. She spoke to Chicago about her experiences at the parade, and what government can do to make public gatherings safe again.
Can you describe your experience at the Highland Park parade?
I was sitting in the back of a convertible, and I had my husband, two brothers-in-law, a sister-in-law, my three adult kids, four of my grandkids with me. We had just pulled out onto the street, and I heard firecrackers. I figured whoever was setting them off was going to get in a lot of trouble. Next thing, we saw a couple of women running back yelling, “Shooter! Shooter!” I honestly thought it was someone who had heard the same sound and was just being hypersensitive. I said, “Well, that person’s overreacting.” But the parade stopped. Nobody was moving forward. We’re all just sitting there on the street. And then this wave of people comes towards us, working their way back, weaving in and out of the cars. And everyone is yelling, “Active shooter!” Kids are being carried by their parents. And people are cutting down the side streets, trying to get off St. Johns Avenue. It was then that I thought, Oh my gosh, this is real, this is happening. I couldn’t see anything from where we were, probably a block from where the shooting was taking place. We really didn’t have a good exit strategy for this. We loaded the convertible with as many people as we could cram in. I think there were five or six people in this little convertible. We stacked others in my car, kind of layered as many on as we could across each other. And then other people just kind of ran for their cars.
Were you shocked that this happened in Highland Park, a place where there had been no murders for years?
I still am in disbelief. It’s surreal. It just never, never, never occurred to me that it could happen there. Right after the shooting, there were a series of vigils. I went to one of them, at a synagogue. I sat down next to a woman, and through the course of the conversation, she told me she had been shot. I was shocked. And she showed me where the bullet had entered and exited her body and talked about being helped by strangers and the love and compassion of everybody. As a legislator, gun violence and assault weapons is something I have worked on for years. But now it has a very personal pull on me. My family and I, my volunteers, my friends, were subjected to that violence. I mean, five minutes, and it could have been us that were gunned down.
Afterward, you said that you will never participate in a parade again.
Remember, this was probably within a few hours. When that happened, I felt like I had jeopardized, not intentionally, the safety of everybody with me. I asked them to be there and do this for me. My whole family was there. I put everybody in harm’s way. I’m hoping that as time passes, and more security measures are put in place, that I will feel more confidence and be able to do parades, because people love to see their elected officials, and we like to see them.
Will avoiding public gatherings be the new normal? Will towns continue to hold parades?
From what I’ve heard, municipalities are starting to think about what other measures can we put in place? One of the things I’ve heard discussed is drones. You know, throw a drone up and do surveillance to make sure there is nobody up on the roof, nobody standing there with a gun. It’s really sad that we’re at this point in our history that we are taking those extra measures so that people feel safe. People love to be together. We like to gather, especially in the summer. Midwestern winters are brutal. We look forward to those days where you get to be outside and see people you haven’t seen for so long and reconnect. That’s what the Fourth of July is about.
Have you talked to constituents who’ve expressed concerns about public gatherings?
I think there’s the sense that we need to live cautiously, not fearfully, and that’s kind of the motto I’m trying to adopt. I still go out in public all the time. I still am going to do speaking. I still do town halls and forums. But it is impossible to erase what happened.
After the shooting, you and 14 other senators cosponsored Senator Aquino’s assault weapons ban. What can one state banning assault weapons accomplish? Highland Park already has an assault weapons ban.
This should be a federal ban. Back in the ’90s, there was a 10-year period where there was a ban on assault weapons, then that sunset was not renewed. What can one state do? Well, somebody has to start. A lot of times, you’ll see states begin initiatives, and then they will be picked up by the federal government after a handful of states have put it in place. I’m hoping that that will be the case. I know in Illinois, there are several senators who have expressed support for this now. And House members as well.
Do you think a state ban would stand up to a court challenge? The courts invalidated Illinois’s concealed carry laws.
I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but I do know that [the Highland Park ban] actually went up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was upheld.
You mentioned the federal assault weapons ban. Do you think if it had still been in place, we would have fewer mass shootings?
Absolutely. There was a great drop in mass casualties and mass shootings during that 10-year period. It was really significant.
When you went to Washington to lobby for another such federal ban, who did you meet with?
I met with [Connecticut Senator] Chris Murphy, who was amazing. [California Representative] Adam Schiff. I met with [Illinois Senators] Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth. Not every senator is willing to meet with a group of people who want to ban assault weapons. The Uvalde parents were with us. They wore T-shirts with their children’s faces on it, kids that had been gunned down. I was, “So my name is Julie Morrison, the state senator, and I was in a parade, blah, blah, blah.” And then the person next to me says, “Yeah, my son was killed at Robb Elementary.” And I mean, it was powerful.
What was the sense you got in Washington? Do they feel like they have enough votes for an assault weapons ban?
They want it. I will say that one senator said, “We don’t have the votes.”
Can people ever feel as passionately about gun control as others do about gun rights?
I think we’re starting to see a shift where we’re prioritizing our safety. We talk about gun rights, and the Second Amendment is very clear. That’s part of our Constitution. But so is the right to live. I think we need to find a place in the middle where we can live safely.