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Cook County’s gun, ammunition taxes shot down because they ‘burden a law-abiding citizen’s right to acquire a firearm’

State Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis wrote that the taxes violate the constitution’s uniformity clause and “impose a burden on the exercise of a fundamental right protected by the second amendment.”

Firearms on display at at Marengo Guns in Marengo in January.
Firearms on display at at Marengo Guns in Marengo in January.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times file.

Two Cook County taxes targeting firearms and ammunition are in jeopardy after the Illinois Supreme Court found they violate the state constitution.

In a 6-0 decision, Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis wrote in an opinion filed Thursday the county’s firearm and ammunition tax ordinances violate the constitution’s uniformity clause, and the taxes “impose a burden on the exercise of a fundamental right protected by the second amendment.”

“While the taxes do not directly burden a law-abiding citizen’s right to use a firearm for self-defense, they do directly burden a law-abiding citizen’s right to acquire a firearm and the necessary ammunition for self-defense,” Theis wrote.

“Under the plain language of the ordinances, the revenue generated from the firearm tax is not directed to any fund or program specifically related to curbing the cost of gun violence,” she wrote.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis in 2012.
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis in 2012.
Brian Jackson~Sun-Times file

“Additionally, nothing in the ordinance indicates that the proceeds generated from the ammunition tax must be specifically directed to initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence. Thus, we hold the tax ordinances are unconstitutional under the uniformity clause.”

That opinion, in the case of non-profit Guns Save Life Inc. versus Cook County, the county’s director of the department of revenue, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, partially reverses decisions from the Cook County Circuit and state appellate courts that upheld the taxes and sends the case back to the circuit court for summary judgment in favor of the non-profit.

Chief Justice Anne Burke took no part in the decision of the case, according to the opinion. In a separate opinion, Justice Michael Burke largely agreed with his colleagues but expressed concern that the majority opinion “leaves space for a municipality to enact a future tax — singling out guns and ammunition sales — that is more narrowly tailored to the purpose of ameliorating gun violence.”

Members of Guns Save Life did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It was not immediately clear what the decision will mean for the county’s taxes.

In a statement, a spokesman for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the county is “disappointed” in the Illinois Supreme Court’s recent decision.

“We intend to meet with our legal counsel and determine any next steps that may be warranted,” the spokesman said. “It is no secret that gun violence continues to be an epidemic in our region. ... Addressing societal costs of gun violence in Cook County is substantial and an important governmental objective.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in 2019.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in 2019.
Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

“We continue to maintain that the cost of a bullet should reflect, even if just a little bit, the cost of the violence that ultimately is not possible without the bullet. We are committed to protecting County residents from the plague of gun violence with or without this tax.”

The spokesman pointed to recent data from the Chicago Police Department that shows the number of shootings in Chicago are up nearly 10% over the last year with almost 2,900 shooting incidents this year.

“The use of guns have had a significant impact on the County’s public safety, health and general expenditures,” the spokesman’s statement reads in part.

The county’s Firearm Tax Ordinance, which was enacted in 2013, imposes a $25 tax on the purchase of a firearm from a retailer in Cook County.

The county later enacted a separate tax on ammunition — $0.05 per cartridge for centerfire ammunition, typically used for rifles, shotguns and handguns, and $0.01 per cartridge for rimfire ammunition, which are popular for small-game hunting or sport shooting, according to the self defense and competition shooting site Target Barn.