Illinois’ lawmakers were served another defeat in state court over their latest gun restrictions on Tuesday.
A three-judge panel ruled two to one against the state’s appeal of an order blocking enforcement of its new ban on “assault weapons” and magazines that hold more than 10 or 15 rounds, depending on the gun they’re used in. The panel left the lower court’s Temporary Restraining Order (TRO), which only affects the 850 plaintiffs listed in the suit, in place. The court ruled the state’s ban infringed on residents’ gun rights under the federal and state constitutions.
“Defendants have argued that plaintiffs have no right in need of protection and are unlikely to succeed on the merits; however, defendants’ arguments were based on an erroneous perception that plaintiffs’ right to keep and bear arms was not a fundamental right,” Justice Barry Vaughan wrote for the majority in Accuracy Firearms v. Pritzker. “As such, we find that plaintiffs’ allegation that the Act infringes on their rights as Illinois citizens to keep and bear arms is a sufficiently alleged right in need of protection.”
The ruling is a further setback for gun-control advocates in Illinois and across the country. Illinois is one of only two states that have passed new statewide bans targeting AR-15s, AK-47s, and thousands of other firearms. Now the law is on hold after review from two separate state courts as it faces down multiple federal suits. Its counterpart in Delaware has not yet been blocked, but it also faces multiple lawsuits from gun-rights proponents. Gun owners’ efforts to defeat the bans extend to states with longer-standing prohibitions as well, where they have been buoyed by a recent Supreme Court decision to vacate and remand a lower court decision upholding Maryland’s law.
Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s (D.) office called the law “an important tool in what must be a comprehensive approach to addressing gun violence throughout Illinois” and vowed to continue the legal fight.
“[W]e remain committed to defending the statute’s constitutionality,” Jamey Dunn-Thomason, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, told The Reload. “We are reviewing the 5th District’s decision, and we will seek its review by the Illinois Supreme Court. We will ask the court for an expedited schedule.”
The Illinois State Rifle Association, an NRA affiliate, said it was “pleased with the decision” and believed it could help in their suit against the law.
“We believe it was the correct decision,” the group tweeted. “We look forward to a similar result in our Federal lawsuit, which will cover EVERY resident in the state of Illinois.”
The Protect Illinois Communities Act bars the sale and manufacture of more than 170 semi-automatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns by name. It also prohibits possessing the banned guns that residents already own unless they register them with Illinois State Police. It bars the sale and manufacture of handgun magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds of ammunition, long gun magazines that hold more than ten rounds, and .50 caliber firearms. Additionally, the law increases the potential duration of a “red flag” order from six months up to a year.
Illinois lawmakers were already facing significant hurdles to enforcing their ban before the courts intervened. The vast majority of the state’s sheriffs have vowed not to enforce the new ban, arguing it is unconstitutional.
“I, among many others, believe HB 5471 is a clear violation of the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” DuPage County Sheriff James Mendrick, whose jurisdiction is the second most populous in the state, said in a public letter last month. “Therefore, as the custodian of the jail and the chief law enforcement official for DuPage County, neither myself nor my office will be checking to ensure that lawful gun owners register their weapons with the state, nor will we be arresting or housing law-abiding individuals that have been arrested solely with non-compliance of this Act.”
State officials have defended the law and promised it would be enforced. Governor J.B. Pritzker (D.) has said he would try and get sheriffs who refused to enforce the ban booted from office and said he could use the state police to enforce the law. He did not respond to a request for comment on the latest ruling but previously said he knew the legal fight would be contentious and remained “confident that the courts will uphold the constitutionality of Illinois’ law.”
He said the ban “takes weapons of war and mass destruction off the street while allowing law-abiding gun owners to retain their collections.”
The three-judge panel disagreed with lower court judge Joshua Morrison on several procedural issues in the case. They ruled Illinois lawmakers likely did not violate the state constitution with how they passed the ban. However, they agreed the state had violated residents’ gun rights by implementing the ban.
The court said restrictions placed on gun ownership have to pass the strict scrutiny test, a high bar that requires the law to be based on a legitimate government interest and aimed at achieving it in the least obstructive way possible. The court said the public interest is served both by plaintiffs being able to defend themselves and loved ones with popular firearms and the state’s desire to curtail gun violence and mass shootings. However, it found there was little to no effort made by legislators to consider that balance.
“Here, we find it extremely relevant that no opportunity for discourse was provided to the citizens of this state that would allow for recognition of the competing interests in accomplishing what we believe is likely a common goal,” Justice Vaughan wrote. “Nor does it appear that the legislative process allowed for even a moment of debate between the lawmakers to ensure that the enactment of this law was “narrowly tailored” to effectuate the Act’s purpose in any manner that would allow a larger exempted group to retain their fundamental rights. For these reasons, we find that balancing the equities favors the issuance of a TRO for count IV, and therefore, we affirm the trial court’s order granting the TRO for count IV.”