Court rulings keep firing away at Chicago's gun laws

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A 2008 opinion on the Second Amendment by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has reshaped gun policies in Chicago and beyond.
  • J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP
  • A 2008 opinion on the Second Amendment by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has reshaped gun policies in Chicago and beyond.
Just a couple years ago it was against the law for a private citizen in Chicago to keep a handgun disassembled in a closet at home. By later this year it will be legal to carry a loaded one on the way to the gun store.

Such rapid changes have been forced by a series of successful legal challenges to Chicago's strict gun policies. The most recent court ruling came on Monday, when a federal judge shot down the city's ban on gun sales and shops, calling it an unconstitutional limitation on the rights of citizens to defend themselves.

Gun-rights groups have undertaken a deliberate strategy to work through the courts because they haven't been able to get the attention of lawmakers here, says Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, one of the organizations behind the legal challenges. "The City Council, the Cook County Board, the state legislature—they have a hard time listening, so we have to make them listen."

The approach has unquestionably had an impact: the court rulings have broadened access to firearms while redefining the politics of gun control well beyond the city limits.

Here's a brief review of how the courts have taken aim at the gun laws in Chicago and Illinois.

District of Columbia v. Heller, U.S. Supreme Court, 2008: Though this case was brought against D.C.'s handgun ban, the decision ended up having a huge impact on Chicago and Illinois by stating in unequivocal language that the ownership of handguns is a constitutional right.

"There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms" for self-defense, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his majority opinion. "The handgun ban amounts to a prohibition of an entire class of 'arms' that is overwhelmingly chosen by American society for that lawful purpose."

However, that doesn't mean that all guns are necessarily allowable in all situations. "Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."

McDonald v. City of Chicago, U.S. Supreme Court, 2010: The court built on the Heller decision and ruled that the Second Amendment applied to state and not just federal laws. That meant that the city of Chicago couldn't disregard it with its own prohibition on handguns.

In his majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito took a swipe at then-mayor Richard M. Daley and defenders of the gun ban. "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. . . .

"If, as petitioners believe, their safety and the safety of other law-abiding members of the community would be enhanced by the possession of handguns in the home for self-defense, then the Second Amendment right protects the rights of minorities and other residents of high-crime areas whose needs are not being met by elected public officials."

Ezell v. City of Chicago, Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, July 2011: The city complied with the McDonald ruling by allowing limited handgun ownership. To receive a city permit, gun owners have to submit to background checks, take a safety course, and practice at a shooting range—yet the new city law banned ranges. This case used the reasoning of the Heller and McDonald decisions to successfully challenge that ban.

"The right to possess firearms for protection implies a corresponding right to acquire and maintain proficiency in their use; the core right wouldn't mean much without the training and practice that make it effective," wrote Judge Diane S. Sykes.

Moore v. Madigan, Shepard v. Madigan, Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, 2012: By 2012, Illinois was the only state in the country that didn't allow residents to acquire a license to carry weapons in public. These two suits, eventually heard together, took on the conceal-and-carry ban.

"Both Heller and McDonald do say that 'the need for defense of self, family, and property is most acute' in the home, but that doesn't mean it is not acute outside the home," Judge Richard Posner wrote. "A Chicagoan is a good deal more likely to be attacked on a sidewalk in a rough neighborhood than in his apartment on the 35th floor of the Park Tower."

The court gave the state six months to come up with a conceal-and-carry law. The Illinois General Assembly put one on the books last July, and state police began approving thousands of applications this week.

Illinois Association of Firearms Retailers v. City of Chicago, U.S. District Court, 2014: Another city prohibition—on firearm sales—fell with the ruling Monday by District Court judge Edmond E. Chang, potentially opening the way for gun shops to open in Chicago.

Chang wrote that the city's justification for the ban—that gun stores would result in more armed criminals—wasn't supported by evidence and doesn't meet the standard established in the earlier rulings. "Whatever burdens the City hopes to impose on criminal users also fall squarely on law-abiding residents who want to exercise their Second Amendment right."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the city had no choice but to comply with the decision. But he also ordered city attorneys to begin creating a new "comprehensive set of restrictions."

In other words, the court battles will continue.

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