CHICAGO (CN) — An Illinois gun rights group filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday night challenging the state's newly enacted ban on assault weapons and extended ammo magazines.
The after-hours suit filed by the Illinois State Rifle Association claims that the ban, signed by Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker on Jan. 10 after passing both chambers of the Legislature, violates the Second and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The ban immediately prohibits the sale and purchase of most semiautomatic weaponry and large capacity magazines in Illinois, and with some exemptions bans assault weapon possession after New Year's Day 2024. Current owners of semiautomatic weapons will be allowed to keep their guns after Jan. 1 only if they register with the Illinois State Police, and then only on their private property or at approved sites like shooting ranges.
The law applies similar rules for current owners of extended ammo magazines, who after April 10 of this year will only be allowed to keep their magazines on their private property, at a shooting range or at a licensed gun repair shop. Those who violate the new restrictions on either magazine or assault weapon ownership can face fines up to $1,000 as well as escalating criminal penalties.
It's these restrictions the ISRA says violate state gun owners' constitutional rights.
"The State’s enactment, and Defendants’ enforcement, of the prohibition on common semiautomatic firearms, tendentiously and inaccurately labeled assault weapons, and on certain magazines arbitrarily deemed to be of 'large capacity,' denies individuals who reside in the State... their fundamental, individual right to keep and bear common arms," the lawsuit states.
The complaint, filed in the Southern District of Illinois, was joined by several smaller gun rights groups, two weapons dealers and an individual gun owner in the St. Louis-adjacent Illinois county of St. Clair. It names as defendants Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly and a handful of state's attorneys, all of whom are responsible for enforcing the new law.
Gun control has been a contested political point in Illinois for years, but the issue took on new urgency this past July. That's when a shooter believed to be 22-year-old Robert Crimo III fired over 70 assault rifle rounds into a crowd attending an Independence Day parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Seven people were killed in the shooting, with dozens more injured.
Despite the carnage, Crimo legally owned the assault rifle he allegedly used to carry out the attack. That revelation prompted criticism of the Illinois State Police, who oversee the application process for Illinois Firearm Owner ID, or FOID, cards. The State Police approved Crimo's FOID application in 2019 despite his being under 21 at the time, and despite several past incidents where Highland Park police had responded to reports that Crimo planned to kill himself and others.
Crimo's father Robert Crimo Jr. is also facing felony reckless conduct charges for sponsoring his underage son's FOID application despite those incidents.
The ISRA's suit does not address the issue of mass shootings. Instead it argues that the state's ban on assault weapons makes Illinoisans more susceptible to violent crime and property theft.
"Illinois has criminalized a common and important means of self-defense," the complaint asserts.
It also claims that the broad scope of the new ban is out of step with traditional U.S. jurisprudence on exceptions to the Second Amendment. It cites the 2022 Supreme Court decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, in which the conservative majority of the high court found that restrictions in New York state's concealed carry law violated the Second and 14th Amendments.
In Bruen, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority that only "dangerous and unusual" weapons can be exempted from Second Amendment protection, and that the handguns available in the U.S. today are so ubiquitous that they cannot be considered unusual. The ISRA's suit makes the same argument for assault weapons in Illinois.
"Arms that are in common use—as the firearms and magazines Illinois has banned unquestionably are—cannot be unusual or dangerous. Therefore, they cannot be banned, and the Illinois laws challenged herein must be declared unconstitutional," the lawsuit states.
The suit comes as no surprise to Illinois lawmakers and politicians, who anticipated legal challenges to the assault weapon ban even as the state Senate was voting to approve it. Prior to a Jan. 9 floor vote on the matter, State Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, openly warned the law's opponents that he'd see them in court.
The same day, ISRA Executive Director Richard Pearson answered in kind by stating he would bring suit against any assault weapon restrictions that the governor signed.
"If this bill is signed by the Governor, the ISRA will file a lawsuit and continue to fight for our 2A rights. The ISRA will not give up!" Pearson wrote in Jan. 9 address to the group's members.
In another statement issued Wednesday morning, Pearson further accused state lawmakers of passing the new law only to serve their own political ambitions.
“Governor Pritzker and the legislators who voted for this law did this for self-serving political purposes and are not upholding the United States Constitution,” Pearson said.
At least one county sheriff in Illinois has also already pledged not to enforce the new law, undermining its legitimacy as a legal force.
"I, among many others, believe that HB 5471 is a clear violation of the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution," Ogle County Sheriff Brian VanVickle wrote on Jan. 11. "Therefore, as the custodian of the jail and chief law enforcement official for Ogle County, [I] proclaim that neither myself or my office will be checking to ensure that lawful gun owners register their weapons with the State, nor will we be arresting or housing individuals that have been charged solely with non-compliance of this Act."
Raoul's office, meanwhile, has not issued any statements on the lawsuit and did not respond to requests for comment. But Pritzker's office, in a Wednesday afternoon statement, said it is confident that the courts will uphold the ban.
"The Governor is confident the courts will uphold the constitutionality of the Protect Illinois Communities Act," a representative of the governor said. "This legislation was the result of hundreds of hours of collaboration and cooperation between legal experts, legislators, and advocates, and it makes Illinois a safer place for every resident."
The statement from the governor's office came within an hour of the Supreme Court declining to block new firearm retail restrictions in New York, which Pritzker's representative took as a good omen. Including Illinois, there are nine states in the U.S. that currently maintain restrictions on the sale and civilian ownership of assault weapons. Washington, D.C., has similar laws in place as well.
A separate gun law case in Illinois is currently being considered by the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit. In that case, two foster parents are suing the state Department of Child and Family Services for the right to keep loaded weapons in their house while still providing in-home day care services.
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