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Illinois assault weapons ban goes before state high court  

In addition to the state-level case, several federal challenges to the ban are also pending.

(CN) — The Illinois Supreme Court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in a case looking to overturn the state's recently enacted assault weapon ban. It's only one of several legal challenges the ban is currently facing.

The Illinois Legislature narrowly enacted the ban in January, in the aftermath of a July 4, 2022 mass shooting in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park that saw seven people killed and dozens more injured. Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the ban into law soon after the legislature passed it.

The new law, with some exceptions, will prohibit the ownership and sale of all guns deemed assault weapons in Illinois starting in 2024. The Legislature also passed a companion bill in January that bans large ammo magazines, defined by state lawmakers as any clips with capacities larger than 10 rounds for long guns and 15 rounds for handguns.

Current Illinois assault weapon owners will be able to keep their guns if they register them with the state police, but those found in possession of unregistered guns past New Year's Day 2024 could face felony charges with three-year minimum jail sentences. 

But that's only if the bans are still in place by next year. In the state Supreme Court chambers on Tuesday, attorneys for a group of central Illinois gun advocates argued that they shouldn't be.

The suit's plaintiffs – consisting of Republican Illinois representative Dan Caulkins, a firearms dealer and a gun rights advocacy group from Illinois' Macon County – first sued the state less than two weeks after Pritzker signed the bills into law. They claim the bans infringe on their Second Amendment rights and violate Illinois due process and equal protection statutes.

Macon County Judge Rodney Forbes proved sympathetic. In February, he barred the state from enforcing the ban on the plaintiffs, and in March he entered a final judgment finding that the law violated the Second Amendment. He also deemed unconstitutional the changes state lawmakers made to the Illinois criminal code to enforce the bans.

The Illinois Attorney General's Office appealed the suit directly to the high court in early March. The state justices agreed to take the case, and a few weeks later placed yet another challenge to the ban on hold pending its decision in the Macon County case. In that challenge, filed in January by dozens of individual gun advocates and a gun shop in southern Illinois, the state's Fifth District Appellate Court affirmed an Effingham County judge's decision to place a restraint on the ban as it affects the plaintiffs. The high court's ruling in the Macon case will now ultimately decide how the Effingham case proceeds.

On Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Leigh Jahnig argued that Judge Forbes erred when he found the ban's enforcement clauses in violation of state equal protection law. Jahnig said she chose to focus on this more arcane facet of the case, rather than the culture war-adjacent arguments relating to the Second Amendment, because it was the issue that the plaintiffs pressed in their lower court filings.

"As to the Second Amendment claim, which the plaintiffs pressed for the first time in their brief on appeal, they did not raise that claim in the circuit court, and thus that claim is also not before this court," Jahnig said.

She repeatedly attempted to hew close to this line of argumentation, despite some of the justices urging her to get to the heart of the issue.

"Counsel, I'm going to ask you, what is the purpose of this legislation?" Justice Elizabeth Rochford asked Jahnig at one point.

"The purpose of this legislation is to freeze the supply of assault weapons, kind of reduce their further proliferation throughout the state, to increase public safety," Jahnig answered.

She further conceded to Rochford that this purpose was not expressly stated on the face of the new law, but countered that rational basis analysis as laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court did require such an express statement.

The gun advocates' attorney Jerrold Stocks, in his own arguments, didn't shy away from the more emotionally charged issues related to the Second Amendment.

"I believe the first question presented is, does the Second Amendment... which we cannot dilute with the Illinois Constitution, the federal Constitution account of the Second Amendment, is, would it tolerate either the prohibitions or the regulations that we have?" Stocks asked the justices on Tuesday. "If the answer is 'no' to that question, then this case is over."

As with Jahnig, Stocks faced his own criticism from the bench. One of the issues Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis disputed with him was the extent to which commercial firearm sales were protected per the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller. In that case, the nation's high court struck down a handgun ban in Washington D.C., and laid out metrics for evaluating whether or not states' gun restrictions were constitutional.

Deceased, conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia also wrote in Heller that the court's opinion should not be used "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."

"You say Heller says that the Second Amendment protects the sale of guns," Theis said to Stocks, "but that's not how I read what Scalia wrote in the opinion."

Stocks rebutted that his arguments regarding Heller only pertained to non-commercial transfers of assault weapons.

"As we have in this case, we're dealing with regulations of non-commercial transfer, possession," Stocks said.

Justice Theis again balked, accusing the attorney of changing his arguments to suit his clients' ends.

Ultimately the justices, who did not say when they would issue a ruling in the case, seemed split on their sympathies toward the attorneys' arguments. This reflects the cultural and political divisions over gun control that separate the liberal Chicago area from the more conservative Illinois hinterlands; divides that are also evident in how, prior to Tuesday's arguments, 33 downstate Illinois counties filed an amici curiae brief in support off the Macon county plaintiffs.

For now the ban remains in place, save for the exceptions made for the Macon and Effingham County plaintiffs. Further federal challenges to the ban are also pending, with arguments before the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit set for June.

Outside of the courtroom, two dozen Illinois county sheriffs have also refused to enforce the assault weapon ban on the grounds that they consider it unconstitutional.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Government, Law, Regional

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