Federal Appeals Court Upholds Illinois’ Assault Weapons Ban

A gun store display is pictured in a file photo. (WTTW News)A gun store display is pictured in a file photo. (WTTW News)

Illinois’ nearly year-old ban on guns deemed assault weapons can stand, per a decision issued Friday by a federal appeals court.

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“Even the most important personal freedoms have their limits,” Judge Diane Woods wrote in the opinion, signed onto by Judge Frank Easterbrook of the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

“Everyone can agree that a personal handgun, used for self-defense, is one of those Arms that law-abiding citizens must be free to ‘keep and bear.’ Everyone can also agree, we hope, that a nuclear weapon such as the now-retired M388 Davy Crockett system, with its 51-pound W54 warhead, can be re-served for the military, even though it is light enough for one person to carry,” Woods wrote, ultimately deciding that the guns and high-capacity magazines regulated under the Protecting Illinois Communities Act “lie on the military side of that line and thus are not within the class of Arms protected by the Second Amendment.”

Woods said distinguishing between the two categories — “between weapons and accessories designed for military or law-enforcement use, and weapons designed for personal use” — has been a legal tradition since the Second Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution.

“The legislation now before us respects and relies on that distinction,” she wrote.

Illinois passed the sweeping ban on guns it classifies as assault weapons, as well as 15-round handgun magazines and 10-round long-gun magazines, after a shooter used an AR-15-style rifle to kill seven people at a Highland Park July 4 parade in 2022.

Since the Protect Illinois Communities Act was signed into law in January 2023, it has been illegal to buy or sell guns and accessories listed in the act.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, whose office defended the law in court, heralded the decision.

“Assault weapons were intended for military use, and the Protect Illinois Communities Act is a tool to prevent them from being used to cause devastation in our schools, places of worship and recreation spaces,” Raoul said.

The ruling also means municipal ordinances in Chicago, Cook County and Naperville that also block the use of certain guns and high-capacity magazines can remain in effect.

In August, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the law.

Still, other legal challenges could be ahead, as Woods explicitly outlined, writing “we are not here today to rule definitively on the constitutionality of the Act or any of the municipal ordinances. The only issue before us concerns preliminary injunctive relief.”

Friday’s ruling bodes well for gun control advocates, said John Schmidt with the Gun Violence Prevention PAC.

“Based on this strong opinion, we expect the Illinois law will continue to be upheld in any further litigation,” Schmidt said. “The decision has particular importance as the first opinion of a court of appeals on the constitutionality of a ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines. Judges Wood and Easterbrook are two of the most respected federal judges in the nation.”

Wood was appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton, while Easterbrook got his position via President Ronald Reagan.

One member of the three-member appeals panel, Judge Michael Brennan (appointed by President Donald Trump), dissented.

“The Second Amendment ‘right of the people to keep and bear Arms’ is not a second-class right. Yet the State of Illinois and several Illinois municipalities have categorically banned law-abiding citizens from keeping and bearing a sweeping range of firearms and magazines,” Brennan wrote.

However, Brennan said he agreed with his colleagues that there’s nothing unconstitutional about the state’s requirement that anyone who owned now-illegal guns before the law was enacted must register them if they want to keep the guns.

Registration opened in October, and gun owners must register covered firearms by the year’s end.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Friday’s order is a victory that affirms the law as “common sense,” but called on federal lawmakers to pass a national law limiting guns like AR-15s.

“Now Congress must act so Illinois is not an island surrounded by states with weak protections,” Pritzker said in a statement.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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