DEERFIELD, Illinois — You can drive from one end of Deerfield, Illinois, to the other in about 15 minutes. Bookended by Panera Breads and surrounded by country clubs, there’s a strip mall, a high school, and some renovated municipal buildings serving a community of about 18,000 with a median income of roughly $133,000. A train will take you into downtown Chicago in less than hour.
But there’s one thing in this average suburban idyll that has residents afraid to talk: I'd rather stay out of it... I don't have an opinion... It's probably best I don't say anything at all anymore.
As people around the country debate guns in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting, many Deerfield residents are suddenly reluctant to weigh in. That’s because on April 5, the Village Board of Trustees in Deerfield quietly and unanimously passed an ordinance that would ban all assault weapons in town beginning June 13. Anyone who does not forfeit the banned weapons listed in the ordinance could be fined up to $1,000 a day.
With DC lawmakers divided and Florida passing only limited gun reform after the Parkland tragedy, the response from faraway Deerfield was dramatic and sweeping — and thrust the village into national headlines and national debate. One comment on the town hall page called them “Communist Nazis”; another wrote, “Congratulations Deerfield, we commend you.”
BuzzFeed News traveled to Deerfield to speak to residents about the gun ban, but encountered a village very much on edge. Many residents declined to speak, fearing backlash. Few who did talk wanted to use their full names. Several parents sent repeated messages or emails marked “URGENT” following interviews with their children, asking with an increasing level of concern that their names not be used. (Some names in this story have been partially or fully withheld in an effort to let subjects speak freely or at the request of parents).
“I really don’t want to be difficult,” said one parent, “but we are very sensitive about these things — and also there are people who are acting irrationally about the ban.”
Pro-gun residents in Deerfield are also biting their tongue. One local gun owner, Brian, initially was reluctant to be interviewed. But the NRA-certified private gun instructor soon began firing off reasons he thought the ban was "stupid."
Still, he said, "I don't want to get in the middle of it."
Less than 48 hours after Deerfield’s ordinance passed, Guns Save Life, an Illinois pro-gun organization, filed a lawsuit against the town challenging the ban on the basis that it was unconstitutional. The NRA quickly and publicly announced their support of the challenge.
Deerfield soon hit back, releasing a public statement acknowledging the lawsuit, but ultimately stating "the Village is confident that they had the authority to enact the ordinance." The ban, they said, was closely modeled after one that held up in court in their neighboring town, Highland Park, in 2013.
BuzzFeed News attempted to interview Deerfield’s mayor and several board members. Receptionists politely took calls, transferred them, and let them ring to voicemail. When BuzzFeed News showed up in person at the city offices, Assistant Village Manager Andrew Lichterman stepped out to shake hands, but said all information pertinent to the ban was available online, and officials weren't interested in commenting any further. When BuzzFeed News asked for clarification on the details of the ordinance, and queried how it will be enforced, Deerfield Police Commander Brian Budny said repeatedly to refer to the village's website.
Walking to her car in the massive Deerfield High School lot at the end of a school day, senior Marissa Cooper, 18, said she was "excited" when she first learned about the vote passing.
"It's a step in the right direction," Cooper said. "I think it's for the better of society and this neighborhood. I definitely feel safer. I'd want other towns to go through with a ban, as well as more gun regulation." She added that her parents feel the same way, noting that they are not gun owners.
Cooper said she was inspired to take her public position largely by the student leaders of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. "A lot of issues get brushed by daily. They took it in their own hands and made a difference, instead of letting other people do it," she said.
But another Deerfield High School student, a junior, admitted she was unsure about her town's ban. The junior said she actually feels more afraid to be a Deerfield resident since the assault weapon ban passed, fearing the contentious online response to the ban might make her and her classmates more of a target.
"It sounds weird, but we don't usually have a lot of attention drawn to our town. Now it's everywhere. It makes me feel like it'll just make someone angry, if they're annoyed about the ban, and they might come to Deerfield High School," she said.
A 20-minute drive from Deerfield High School is NorthShore Sports Club, a country club for gun enthusiasts and owners. NorthShore offers gun safety training, gun ranges in which to shoot, a gun shop stocked with all kinds of weapons and ammunition, and a full bar and restaurant. It's technically located in a neighboring town called Lake Forest, but the club sees a good handful of Deerfield residents. After the ban, it’s now preparing to welcome even more.
NorthShore Sports Club is offering Deerfield residents free-of-charge storage for all of their guns at its facility when the ban takes effect in June. Matt Seibert, the manager of the club, told BuzzFeed News none of his friends in Deerfield plan to surrender their guns to their local government.
"Most people aren't going to turn [their weapons] in; they're going to give them to friends who live in other towns, or store them here," Seibert said.
"They're frustrated by it," he said of his friends.
Seibert firmly believes Deerfield’s ban on an extensive list of assault weapons — a contested term that the village defines as including semi-automatic rifles with fixed or detachable, large capacity magazines, types of semi-automatic shotguns, and any shotgun with a revolving cylinder, as well as several specifics models, including the AK-47 and AR-15 — is not the answer to the ongoing national debate surrounding gun safety.
He says the “real issue” the country should be debating is mental health. He wants officials to work to identify the so-called bad guys earlier to prevent another Parkland tragedy, instead of taking away weapons.
In a state that historically votes Democratic, and in a town that many locals say leans liberal, Seibert believes Second-Amendment conservatives are "villainized" more so than in other states. As such, firearm owners and advocates who do reside in the area are what he calls “closeted gun people,” but he says their hold on their guns will only grow stronger.
"There's a lot more gun people than anyone thinks … [but] it's a quiet group of people,” he said. “And the more you keep pushing these things, you're not creating any fewer gun people.”
Brian, the private gun instructor, who operates his business out of his condo, considers himself one of these people in Deerfield. He’d previously lived in Highland Park, but when they moved to take his rifles and handguns, he relocated to Deerfield in 2013, gave up his job in finance, and created a limited liability company called Concealed Carry of Illinois. Brian now meets with private citizens in and around town to educate them on gun safety practices.
Come June, Brian plans to store his collection of banned rifles just outside of Deerfield, at a venue like NorthShore. Outside of calling the recent (and for him, specifically, wildly unlucky) Deerfield motion "stupid," his thoughts echo many of Seibert's, emphasizing that the city’s response should be focused on mental health.
"There's never been a crime used with an AR-15 in Deerfield, so what's the point? Why restrict residents' abilities to use something they've never used?” he asked.
Brian said he'd be open to discussions about instating mandatory trainings for new gun owners and raising the age of ownership for all guns to 21. But banning semi-automatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns altogether doesn’t make sense to him.
"To restrict magazine capacity… It's just stupid. Follow the law. You're only hurting law-abiding citizens in your town," he said. "The whole thing is so stupid."
A five-minute drive back on the main road from Deerfield High School is one of the two Starbucks within the town limits. Students not ready to go home immediately after school drive to this nearby coffee shop to continue to hang out with their friends.
A group of eighth-grade girls from Deerfield’s Caruso Middle School took over a cluster of couches in the middle of the Starbucks. Less than a month ago, they'd all participated in the national walkout in support of Parkland students at their school, so they thought it was “so cool" that they're a part of "a town that's actually doing something" in response to the Parkland mass shooting, said one of the girls. Her friends all nodded in agreement.
"There aren't a lot of crimes [in Deerfield], but knowing there aren't going to be assault rifles around, I feel safer. I definitely feel safer," she said. There was another shy chorus of nods from her friends.
A 17-year-old, white high schooler a few seats away said she appreciated the intentions behind the ban but wasn’t sure why her town — a quaint, affluent suburb where gun-related crimes are so rare they’re almost nonexistent — had taken such a dramatic stance after the Parkland shooting. “It feels weird to think about,” she said.
Anti-gun activists in nearby Chicago applauded Deerfield’s ban, but noted the village's experiences with guns are different, as are its demographics. “It’s easier to pass something like this in Deerfield” than in Chicago’s South Side, said Shawn Bronson, 47, who leads a Facebook group called Stop the Violence in the Streets of Chicago. “It doesn’t affect them as it does the inner city.”
While crime seems to be declining in Chicago compared to last year, 569 people have still been shot in the city so far in 2018, according to the Chicago Tribune. Bronson’s Facebook page shares stories, photos, and news articles of local victims of gun crimes — a feed of faces of mostly black Chicagoans and tribute graphics he made himself or pulled from family members’ feeds. Bronson now lives just outside of the city limits but grew up on Chicago’s South and West sides and has been familiar with gun violence from a young age. “I know the destruction it can cause,” he told BuzzFeed News, having personally witnessed and lost friends to gun violence.
Bronson said Deerfield’s ban is overall “a good step” within the larger conversation around gun laws in the United States. He simply wishes change could have been seen this quickly when he was growing up. He wondered whether the upper-class residents of Deerfield have more political influence than those in Chicago. “It’s almost like [Chicago] lets inner-city youth kill each other off in the city,” he said.
Trinity Cole-Reid, a high school senior from Englewood, a community once infamously hailed as "one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods,” has been an activist against gun violence since long before Parkland. She recently met with student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to rally together for their common goals.
She said Deerfield brought forward “a great idea” with its assault weapon ban. However, in observing how quickly and unanimously the town implemented strict new laws, she said that “people invest in you only if you have a certain amount of money.”
Cole-Reid told BuzzFeed News she believes that, like in Parkland, wealth and social influence greatly helped Deerfield to take action on gun policy, while gun crimes are not nearly as personal or as pressing of an issue in Deerfield as it is for residents in her community.
“Things don't take as long getting attention when [upper-class people] ask for something, and they don't face a lot of the things that happen in Chicago on a daily basis,” she added.
But she remains hopeful for Englewood, and other communities in the country that could follow the ban. She hopes Deerfield local officials could meet with Chicago politicians to join minds and inspire more action, like she and other classmates did with Parkland teens.
“Chicago is a tale of two cities. The haves and have-nots,” Bronson said of the city, and its suburbs.
Back in the Deerfield Starbucks, the 17-year-old, white high school teen reflected further on how she felt about the ban, settling on something diplomatic. "I don't want to hurt anybody," she said quietly. "I would just — I want everyone to be closer as a community. And to realize what other people are feeling. I don't think anyone is listening to each other right now."
Minutes after speaking, the high schooler rushed over her with her iPhone outside of the Starbucks. Her mom was on the line. The woman explained that given how tense the climate has become in Deerfield, especially online, she was trying to stay vigilant and protect her daughter. She said thank you for asking her daughter's opinion on the matter, but she'd rather the teen didn’t say too much. She wanted her to stay out of it for now.