ST. LOUIS - A southern Illinois retiree whose legal fight helped bring about an end to the state's last-in-the-nation ban on concealed carry has become among the state's first to get her permit to have a handgun in public.
Mary Shepard, 74, considered the mail she received Tuesday from Illinois State Police a reward - partly for slogging through ice and snow to her mailbox at the end of a long, rural driveway, and partly because of her legal push that followed a 2009 church attack that left her severely beaten while unarmed.
"I flipped through the mail, and there it was," Shepard told The Associated Press by telephone from her home near Cobden. "I was just so over-the-top thrilled and unbelievably happy. I had waited so long for this, and I felt like I accomplished something. And here it was, making everything just worthwhile. I couldn't wait to tell everyone."
Shepard, whose permit arrival was first reported by WSIL-TV in Harrisburg, Ill., became a gun-rights activist after she was randomly assaulted by an intruder while working as a treasurer at First Baptist Church in Anna. She has argued that had she not been barred from carrying a gun, she could have thwarted the attack.
After Shepard sued to have the state's concealed carry ban thrown out, the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December 2012 that the prohibition was unconstitutional. After months of debate, Illinois lawmakers last summer narrowly beat a federal court deadline and adopted the concealed carry law over Gov. Pat Quinn's vehement objections - something Shepard called Thursday "a great victory."
The five-year licenses, which started being sent out last week, largely went to the earliest applicants: firearms instructors and others who submitted electronic fingerprints ahead of the official Jan. 5 launch of the online application process. Illinois State Police have approved roughly 5,000 concealed-carry applications.
More work lies ahead: Already, about 46,000 applications have been submitted, putting the state on track to field nearly 300,000 applications this year. That's about some 100,000 fewer than originally projected.
But Shepard and other gun-rights advocates argue the new law is imperfect, citing a long list of places where concealed handguns are not allowed - such properties as schools, child care facilities, courthouses, government buildings, hospitals, nursing homes, and forms of public transit.
While churches have autonomy in deciding whether guns will be allowed on their property, Shepard said Thursday her church hasn't indicated its preference. To Shepard, that may be because the issue hits too close to home.
"Now it's never talked about, never mentioned (at the church). It's like it never happened," Shepard said of the attack, which she admits has left her uneasy about going to the church aside from just Sunday mornings. "I used to be there continually. I loved that job, that place. It was my church. But I thought I was completely safe in that church.
"Then one day, I woke up and found I wasn't."
While unclear about whether she would pack a pistol at church now that she's licensed to carry one, Shepard said she would continue advocating easing the restrictions on where concealed weapons are allowed.
"You never know what's going to happen," she said. "It's just another case of being told what to do, what not to do."