One of the nation's most contentious gun control battles is underway in the Illinois state legislature, where Gov. George Ryan (R) is locked in a stalemate with his own party's Senate majority over reenacting a law that would make the unlawful carrying of a weapon a felony for first-time offenders.

Opponents of the measure, which include the National Rifle Association, its Illinois affiliate and sportsmen's groups throughout the state, contend the law would stigmatize hunters and recreational shooters with a felony conviction if they transport legal guns in the back of sport-utility vehicles that lack locking trunks.

However, Ryan and his supporters, who include Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D), a staunch gun control advocate, and the heads of most law enforcement agencies in the state, argue that the measure is aimed primarily at gang members and criminals. They contend that conservative Republicans and their gun lobby allies are attempting to "back-door" the adoption of a "concealed carry" law by making the unlawful transport of a weapon a misdemeanor.

Thirty-eight states have concealed-carry laws, which typically guarantee citizens the right to carry concealed weapons if they pass a criminal background check and complete a gun safety course. The NRA has spent millions of dollars backing concealed-carry legislation or ballot initiatives elsewhere, and gun control advocates say the powerful lobbying group is playing an active behind-the-scenes role in the Illinois battle over transporting guns.

Ryan, a moderate Republican who was elected last year partly on the strength of his strong gun control stance, called the legislature into one inconclusive special session last week in an effort to break the impasse and has summoned lawmakers for another emergency session on Wednesday. But with conservative Senate President James "Pate" Philip (R) standing firm with at least a dozen Republicans in the narrowly GOP Senate, and with regional conflicts playing out between downstate and upstate members as they usually do on gun issues, the governor appears far from assured of winning.

A provision making unlawful use of a weapon a felony for first-time offenders was included in an omnibus Safe Neighborhoods Act adopted in 1994. But the state Supreme Court overturned the law Dec. 2, ruling that it was unconstitutional because it covered too many issues. The state House of Representatives, which is narrowly controlled by Democrats, voted to reenact the law, but Philip, who for years has driven moderate Republican governors to distraction by opposing their legislative agendas, marshaled enough backing in the Senate to block the bill by seven votes.

Under the law, a lawful gun owner can transport the weapon if it is locked in a vehicle's trunk and is inaccessible to the driver or if it is unloaded, fully broken down and contained in a gun case. However, technically, a hunter would be subject to a felony arrest if an assembled gun was found in the passenger compartment of his vehicle.

"What they want to do is criminalize the transport of a weapon if your vehicle doesn't have a trunk," said Richard Pearson, chairman of the Illinois State Rifle Association. "If you're a hunter, guess what you're driving? A sports-utility vehicle."

Pearson said that if the wife of a target shooter unknowingly was transporting her husband's pistol and did not have a gun owner's identification card, she could be charged as a felon. Similarly, a hunter who failed to break his gun down completely, or did not completely close the zipper on his gun case, could be charged.

"If you're a hunter, you don't want to take your gun completely apart because it won't shoot the same way it did before," Pearson said. "But if you get a felony on your record, you can't get it off. It's there for life, and it ruins your life."

Pearson acknowledged that he would like to see a concealed-carry law enacted in Illinois, but he insisted "this has nothing to do with that." He said he favors 99 percent of the Safe Neighborhoods Act, which among other things protects witnesses and jurors in gang-related cases, cracks down on gun-running and forces people charged with domestic battery or stalking to surrender their firearms before being released on bail.

But he said the proposed law "is criminalizing an innocent act and it was done in a way the Supreme Court said was unconstitutional."

However, Ryan's press secretary, David Urbanek, said that if the unlawful carrying of a weapon is made a misdemeanor again, as it was before the 1994 law was passed, gang members caught with guns under the seats of their cars would be released within hours of their arrest, routinely given 30 days' probation and allowed to have their records expunged.

Urbanek said that after the felony provision was put in place, the number of guns confiscated by Chicago police dropped from 22,247 in 1994 to 11,522 last year "because criminals know if they're caught with a gun they can go to prison." He said hunting is not the issue because between 1995 and this year there were more gun-carrying arrests in heavily populated Cook County, which includes Chicago, than in all of the 101 other Illinois counties combined.

Ryan took the unusual step of sending members of his cabinet, including Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood (R) and Natural Resources Director Brent Manning, around the state on Monday to reassure sportsmen that they would not be targeted for felony arrests.

Today he held a news conference here with Daley to promote the bill. Holding a short-barreled, concealable rifle, Ryan said, "People who use these guns are people hunters, not animal hunters."

Mark Karlin, chairman of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, called the gun lobbyists' concerns about transporting hunters' guns in sport-utility vehicles a "ruse" to set the stage for enactment of a concealed-carry law.

"They can dress up the turkey any way they want, but it's still a turkey," Karlin said. He said the NRA had increased its campaign contributions to Philip and state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and was directing a massive telephone campaign to pressure legislators to vote against the gun measure.

"This law gives police and prosecutors the tools they need to fight crime," Karlin said. "There is nothing police officers fear more than approaching a car with a gun under the seat. That's why they support this, too."

A Law in the Cross-Fire

The Safe Neighborhoods Act of 1994 made illegal possession of a firearm a felony, punishable with prison time, rather than a misdemeanor.

The number of illegal firearms confiscated in Chicago dropped by almost half after the law was enacted.

Guns confiscated in Chicago

1994 22,247

1997 12,200

1998 11,522

Most of the gun arrests under the law were made in Cook County, which includes Chicago.

Firearm arrests, 1995-99

Cook County 13,807

All other areas 2,997

The number of arrests for unlawful use of a firearm dropped in Cook County each year the law was in place. Firearm arrests in Cook County

1995 3,892

1996 3,582

1997 2,989

1998 2,023

SOURCE: Illinois governor's office