Illinois Supreme Court narrowly upholds assault weapons ban as opponents vow to continue legal fight

The 4-3 decision was handed down in a lawsuit by a central Illinois lawmaker who argued the ban violates the state constitution.

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Assault weapons and hand guns are seen for sale at Capitol City Arms Supply in Springfield.

Seth Perlman, AP Photos

The Illinois Supreme Court narrowly upheld the state’s assault weapons ban Friday, but opponents vowed to continue their fight in state and federal courts against the law which bars the sale of high-powered rifles and high-capacity magazines.

The 4-3 decision came in a lawsuit brought earlier this year by a central Illinois legislator who argued that the sweeping ban violates the state constitution.

The suit from state Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, was part of a flurry of challenges to the constitutionality of the law after it was signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Jan. 10. A second lawsuit is still pending before the justices and other challenges are still being fought in federal court.

Pritzker campaigned for reelection on the ban and signed it into law the day after he was inaugurated in January. He said he was “pleased” the state’s high court upheld “a common sense gun reform law to keep mass-killing machines off of our streets and out of our schools.”

“This decision is a win for advocates, survivors, and families alike because it preserves this nation-leading legislation to combat gun violence and save countless lives,” he said.

Pritzker, a Democrat, tapped his wealth last year to boost two candidates for the state Supreme Court, Mary K. O’Brien and Elizabeth Rochford, who helped preserve the 5-2 Democratic majority.

Last month, they and the other Democrats on the court upheld a controversial state law that will eliminate cash bail this fall, a measure backed by the billionaire governor.

Caulkins tried to get O’Brien and Rochford disqualified from taking part in the weapons ban decision, citing donations from the governor and other Democratic officials. The court denied the request.

The two justices ended up split over the case.

Rochford, the daughter of a former Chicago police superintendent, wrote the majority opinion upholding the law. O’Brien, a former Democratic legislator elected in a district drawn to lean Republican, wrote her own dissent and held that the law “will not reasonably remedy the evils the legislation was designed to combat.”

Illinois State Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, pictured at the 2019 Illinois State Fair.

Illinois State Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, pictured at the 2019 Illinois State Fair.

AP Photos

Caulkins said Friday he was “disappointed but not surprised considering the makeup of the Supreme Court and the amount of money that has flowed into campaign coffers from the governor.”

“Pritzker and Illinois Democrats have criminalized hundreds of thousands of legal gun owners,” he said, adding that he’s confident the ban “will eventually be overturned” in federal court.

Lawmakers approved the ban about six months after a gunman killed seven people and wounded more than 48 others at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade using a high-powered rifle that was outfitted with a large magazine.

Police collected 83 shell casings after the shooting and said the shooter fired a 30-round magazine, then fired two more.

Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering issued a statement saying the ruling “sends a message to residents that saving lives takes precedence over thoughts and prayers and acknowledges the importance of sensible gun control measures.

“We as a nation do not have time to wait.” she said. “Congress now needs to take the next step and work to end mass shootings across the nation.”

The law bans the sale, delivery, import and purchase of guns that the law defines as “assault weapons.” It also makes devices known as switches, which modify guns to allow them to fire more rapidly, illegal because they turn firearms into fully automatic weapons.

Macon County Judge Rodney Forbes ruled in favor of Caulkins’ lawsuit on March 3, writing in a brief decision that the ban violated the equal protection and special legislation clauses of the Illinois Constitution.

Notably, the high court did not rule Friday on whether the ban violated the right to bear arms in the state’s constitution, stating the group that brought the suit had made the argument “only in passing” and weren’t made during arguments in the circuit court.

Instead, the majority opinion stated the ban did not violate the equal protection and special legislation clauses of the state constitution, which state that laws should be applied equally and not target a group.

Caulkins slammed the majority for “twisting this case in such a way it’s hardly recognizable as to how it was brought to them. And that clearly shows just how politicized this court is.”

State Sen. Darren Bailey, the far-right firebrand who unsuccessfully challenged Pritzker last November and is now running for a downstate congressional seat, posted a Facebook video from his porch blasting what he called “a blow to this great republic.”

State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, pictured in September 2022.

State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, pictured in September 2022.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“We don’t know where this is going to go, but if need be, this front porch will be my final stand,” said Bailey, R-Xenia. “I will not allow anyone to come and take anything from me. And if need be … I will die on this front porch before I give up any of my Second Amendment freedoms.”

In fact, owners of now-banned weapons won’t have their guns confiscated under the law, but they will have to register them with state police by Jan. 1.

Caulkins’ lawsuit had argued that the law was unequally applied because anyone who had a semiautomatic weapon on the date the law took effect could keep it, although they’re restricted in selling or transferring such weapons.

The ban also exempts law enforcement officers, including those who are retired, and on-duty military personnel. Critics argued many civilians have more experience and training in handling semiautomatic weapons than law enforcement officers.

Writing for the majority, Rochford stated that the ban’s restrictions on who can own an assault weapon “neither deny equal protection nor constitute special legislation because plaintiffs have not sufficiently alleged that they are similarly situated to and treated differently from the exempt classes.”

Caulkins also argued that the legislature had not followed procedure, which requires three readings of the bill. But the court’s majority declined to weigh in on that argument, saying Caulkins had not properly addressed it in his appeal.

However, the court’s two Republican justices, Lisa Holder White and David Overstreet, cited that issue as the basis of their dissent.

“Because the procedural requirements of the constitution were not met ... I would find the Act unconstitutional in its entirety,” wrote Holder White. “Thus, until this court has before it a validly passed act of the Legislature, we should make no determination on the Act at issue in this case.”

In a separate dissent, O’Brien argued that the exemptions in the ban were inconsistent and would likely to fail to protect the public.

“I find they do not and will not reasonably remedy the evils the legislation was designed to combat,” O’Brien wrote. “Importantly, exempting the professionals and grandfathered groups does nothing to prevent the proliferation of out-of-state assault weapon possession or prevent those weapons from being used for mass shootings in this state or elsewhere.

“The legislation does not prevent weapon manufacturers, some located within this state, from continuing to sell assault weapons and LCMs to out-of-state residents, who may then potentially perpetrate a mass shooting,” she continued. “Because 60% of the weapons used in crimes in Illinois come from out of state, the legislation does not further its purported goal of reducing the number of weapons in the state.”

University of Illinois Chicago constitutional law professor Steven Schwinn said the fractured ruling shows how courts are struggling over the issue of regulating firearms. However, he said that a four justice majority voting to uphold the ban would indicate the court would continue to do so in future challenges.

Attorney Tom DeVore, who has a separate lawsuit against the ban on behalf of Accuracy Firearms and others pending before the justices, said he would continue to fight despite Friday’s opinion.

DeVore said he believes the attorney general’s office will shortly move to dismiss his suit, but said that based on his reading of Friday’s opinion and dissents, the high court would allow his suit to continue.

State Rep. Bob Morgan, a Deerfield Democrat who was at the deadly parade shooting and introduced the gun control measure, celebrated the decision with tempered optimism.

“The federal courts will continue to assess this law, but today’s ruling prioritizes public safety over the gun lobby trying to impose their dangerous, extreme views through the judiciary,” Morgan said in a statement.

Meanwhile, legal challenges continue in federal court.

In June, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in six consolidated lawsuits challenging the ban on the grounds it violates the Second Amendment of the U.S. constitution.

The lawsuits cite a U.S. Supreme Court decision that gun regulations must be “consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation” and that weapons cannot be banned if they are “in common use.” The court has not issued a ruling yet.

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