Illinois Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Challenge to State’s Assault Weapons Ban

Illinois’ assault weapons ban is being challenged from several legal fronts.

After seven people were shot and killed during Highland Park’s Independence Day parade last summer, Illinois in January took a major and controversial step toward limiting which guns can be used and sold in state.

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The Illinois Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments as it’s asked to weigh the law’s constitutionality. The case was brought by state Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, on behalf of gun owners, against Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Attorney General Kwame Raoul and the legislature’s leaders.

The justices are tasked with deciding whether they agree with a downstate judge who ruled the law violates Illinois’ “equal protection” requirement.

Plaintiffs said the clause mandates that all individuals — in this case, gun owners — must be treated the same. Plaintiffs said Illinois’ law breaks that requirement with its grandfather clause, that allows those who previously owned guns like AR-15s to keep them.

The law also allows members of law enforcement to have guns listed as assault weapons.

Everyone else can’t.

“Consider this: A military veteran is trained, but he can’t have that weapon to protect his family at home,” plaintiffs’ attorney Jerry Stocks said. “A security guard may or may not be trained but he has it (an assault weapon) only while he works. The Second Amendment elevates above all interest. It’s not tolerating interests for a police officer, interest for a security guard, interest for a prison warden. Or here — the most glaring offense — for the grandfathered. There’s no reason to conclude, but on an arbitrary basis, that the grandfathered are any better trained or safer than those that would acquire the weapon later on.”

But Raoul said with Illinois residents dying at the hands of such guns, there is a rational basis for limiting their use and sale.

“Do you want more people to go out and get those weapons and go to parades and commit mass shootings?” Raoul said. “I don’t, and I don’t think the legislature does either.”

Justices gave no indication of how they’ll rule, though Justice Lisa Holder White asked Assistant Attorney General Leigh Jahnig, arguing on behalf of the state, whether the right to bear arms is a fundamental right.

Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis, though, seemed to side with the defense, as she repeatedly questioned why the Second Amendment should be a factor at all considering it wasn’t an argument previously made by plaintiffs as a reason the law should be found unconstitutional.

“It’s not what you brought,” Theis said. “You framed this in a totally different way. You could have joined the three cases, the three federal cases. You chose to shape it in a different way about special legislation and equal protection. It’s a much different analysis.”

As Theis noted, the law also faces a legal challenge at the federal level.

Several court rulings, with competing results, are now awaiting action from a U.S. appeals court.

While a lot hangs on the legal verdict, passage of the law was a huge victory for groups like Moms Demand Action, whose members were at the capitol Tuesday to press legislators to do more.

“Already in 2023, we’re on pace to be a record year for gun violence in our country,” said Moms Demand Action director Angela Ferrell-Zabala. “We can’t stop now. We can’t. We need to hold the gun industry accountable for its role in fueling this crisis.”

The group is pushing for:

  • a law that would allow private citizens to sue gun manufacturers (HB218);
  • a law that would let police seize guns from someone if a domestic violence victim wins an order of protection against that person (HB676; the measure also creates a task force to survey insurance for firearm owners);
  • and a measure that would revive cold cases (HB1210).

Valerie Burgest’s son was shot to death on the South Side of Chicago in late 2013. Almost a decade later, his murder is still unsolved. She said her son left behind two kids, including one who is now 10 years old and has questions.

The child, she said, recently asked her, “Why did they shoot my daddy?”

“And I had to tell him ‘I don’t know,’” Burgest said. “His next question was, ‘Did they catch who did it?’ and my answer was, ‘No.’ But I wanted to say, ‘Not yet,’ because I still have hope.”

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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