Federal court rips Chicago's gun-range ban as the City Council dumps it

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Just a day after seeing it for the first time, aldermen on Wednesday signed off on the Emanuel administration's ordinance scrapping the city's ban on gun ranges.

Such swiftness is nothing new—last year the council passed the Daley administration's new gun ownership law just a day after it was introduced and well before most aldermen had read it.

What's changed is that last year's law was passed after the U.S. Supreme Court shot down Chicago's 28-year-old ban on handguns and mocked the logic of city officials who defended it. This time the mayor and the council tried to act before a federal court made them.

They didn't quite get it done: passage of the new gun range law came about the same time as a decision by the Seventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals that chastised city officials for substituting rhetoric and politics for a coherent policy on firearms.

In the Supreme Court decision last year, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that "Chicago Police Department statistics, we are told, reveal that the City’s handgun murder rate has actually increased since the ban was enacted and that Chicago residents now face one of the highest murder rates in the country and rates of other violent crimes that exceed the average in comparable cities."

Mayor Richard M. Daley subsequently ordered city lawyers to draft a new law that complied with the ruling—but just barely.

It allowed handgun ownership, but only after potential owners go through three background checks, acquire a state firearm owner identification card, register with the police, pay a $100 fee plus $15 per gun, and take a training class that includes practice time on a firing range. But firing ranges were themselves prohibited in the city, meaning that anyone wanting to follow the rules had to trek to the suburbs.

The appellate judges called the city out on Wednesday.

"The City maintains that firing ranges create the risk of accidental death or injury and attract thieves wanting to steal firearms. But it produced no evidence to establish that these are realistic concerns, much less that they warrant a total prohibition on firing ranges," writes Judge Diane S. Sykes in her majority opinion. "The City produced no empirical evidence whatsoever and rested its entire defense of the range ban on speculation."

"The City quickly enacted an ordinance that was too clever by half," Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner adds in her separate but concurring opinion. "Recognizing that a complete gun ban would no longer survive Supreme Court review, the City required all gun owners to obtain training that included one hour of live-range instruction, and then banned all live ranges within City limits. This was not so much a nod to the importance of live-range training as it was a thumbing of the municipal nose at the Supreme Court. The effect of the ordinance is another complete ban on gun ownership within City limits."

That's not entirely true—as I recently reported, more than 3,100 people have found ways to register guns under the new ordinance. Yet far more gun owners are simply bypassing the city's rules.

It's not yet clear what the city's gun policies will evolve into under Mayor Emanuel. While his police chief, Garry McCarthy, has stirred up controversy with his own less-than-coherent declarations about both the NRA and gun "abolitionists," the mayor has been far more muted. He's vowed that gun laws will be "strictly enforced," but unlike Daley he apparently saw little political gain in fighting the gun-range challenge to an almost-certain defeat in the Supreme Court.

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