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Federal appeals court upholds Illinois’ assault weapons ban

Dirksen Courthouse.
File photo
Capitol News Illinois
Dirksen Courthouse.

In a 2-1 ruling Friday, a federal appeals court declined to block enforcement of the state's assault weapon ban as well as similar local ordinances, saying the rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution are not absolute.

The judges sided with two lower court decisions from the Chicago area but overturned the ruling of a federal court in southern Illinois, stating that the plaintiffs “have not shown the likelihood of success on the merits, based on the fact that military weapons lie outside the class of arms to which the individual right applies.”

“The Second Amendment to the Constitution recognizes an individual right to ‘keep and bear Arms.’ Of that there can be no doubt,” the majority opinion began, citing a string of recent Supreme Court cases. “But as we know from long experience with other fundamental rights, such as the right to free speech, the right peaceably to assemble, the right to vote, and the right to free exercise of religion, even the most important personal freedoms have their limits.”

Still, Friday’s decision applied only to the preliminary injunction and did not amount to a definitive ruling on constitutionality, the court noted.

The decision involved three consolidated cases that challenged the state’s assault weapon ban as well as local ordinances enacted in Cook County, Chicago and Naperville. Both the state law and the Naperville ordinance were passed in response to a mass shooting last year at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park that left seven people dead and dozens more injured and traumatized.

Illinois lawmakers passed the state law during a special lame duck session in January, and Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker signed it within hours of its passage out of the General Assembly. Read more: Pritzker signs assault weapon sales, manufacturing ban

The new law sparked immediate challenges in both state and federal courts. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the law in August against narrow challenges under the state constitution. But the broader legal issues were aired in federal courts, where judges in different districts reached different conclusions.

One judge in the Southern District of Illinois ruled in April that the law violated the Second Amendment of the constitution. But two judges in the Northern District came to the opposite conclusion. Those three cases were then consolidated in the appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Read more: Federal appeals court weighs constitutionality of Illinois’ assault weapons ban

Judge Diane Wood wrote the majority opinion, joined in concurrence by Judge Frank Easterbrook, while in a 44-page dissent – nearly as long as the opinion itself – Judge Michael Brennan wrote the state and municipal governments that enacted the bans “failed to meet their burden to show that their bans are part of the history and tradition of firearms regulation.”

He also ripped his colleagues’ “remarkable” conclusion that personal ownership of assault-style weapons and high-powered magazines is not protected by the Second Amendment. The majority wrote the firearms banned under Illinois’ law are “much more like machine guns and military-grade weaponry” than those typically used for self-defense, like handguns.

“The AR-15 is a civilian, not military, weapon,” Brennan wrote. “No army in the world uses a service rifle that is only semiautomatic. Even so, the majority opinion uses a civilian firearm’s military counterpart to determine whether it is an ‘Arm.’”

Gun control advocates issued immediate statements praising the decision.

“This is an important victory in the fight against gun violence, and a victory for all states and municipalities that are fighting to keep their residents safe,” Douglas Letter, chief legal officer for the anti-gun violence group Brady, said in a statement. “States and cities should have the right to stop these weapons of war from decimating our communities, and this ruling demonstrates that assault weapon bans are indeed constitutional.”

Gov. JB Pritzker praised the court’s opinion, saying in a statement the majority recognized the assault weapons ban as a “commonsense law” and urging Congress to pass an assault weapons ban “so Illinois is not an island surrounded by states with weak protections.”

“Despite constant attacks by the gun lobby that puts ideology over people’s lives, here in Illinois we have stood up and said ‘no more’ to weapons of war on our streets,” Pritzker said. “This is a victory for the members of the General Assembly who stood alongside families, students and survivors who worked so hard to make this day a reality.”

Friday’s opinion comes in the midst of a series of Illinois State Police hearings on the part of the assault weapons ban law that allows gun owners who already possess banned weapons and high-capacity magazines to be able to keep them so long as they’re registered with the state. Read more: Assault weapon registration period remains open as Illinois State Police seeks further input

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the scope of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling. The ruling pertained to preliminary injunctive relief, rather than a definitive ruling on the law’s constitutionality. Capitol News Illinois regrets the error.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Peter Hancock joined the Capitol News Illinois team as a reporter in January 2019.
Hannah covers state government and politics for NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Radio. She previously covered the statehouse for The Daily Line and Law360, and also worked a temporary stint at the political blog Capitol Fax in 2018.