New gun advertising restrictions in Illinois haven’t disrupted youth shooting sports, but they already face a legal challenge.
Illinois House Bill 0218, which would allow the state of Illinois to sue businesses for marketing, designing, or selling “any firearm-related product in a manner that reasonably appears to […] encourage persons under 18 years of age to unlawfully purchase or unlawfully possess or use a firearm-related product” officially took effect this week. Thus far, Illinois youth shooting organizations feel confident that the law will not impact their operations.
“The League does not expect the new laws in Illinois to have any effect on youth shooting sports participation,” Drew Tri, a spokesperson for the USA High School Clay Target League, told The Reload. “As a lawful school-approved activity with over 1,500 student athletes participating on 84 high school teams across the state this Spring, the League does not fall within the purview of the new restrictions.”
But the Illinois law has already been met with a lawsuit. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the firearms industry trade group, filed a lawsuit against HB 0218 on Monday. The group alleges that the law violates the commercial free speech rights of legal gun businesses and is preempted by the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which generally precludes lawsuits against the firearms industry for crimes committed by third parties.
Illinois is now the second state to crack down on firearms advertising allegedly aimed at children. California passed a similar law last June, which imposed a $25,000 civil penalty for advertising or marketing any firearm-related product which “reasonably appears to be attractive to minors.” The move almost immediately led to the shutdown of youth sport shooting events across the state as organizations sought to avoid hefty legal fees for running afoul of the law. California lawmakers were eventually forced to revise the law with an exemption for lawful youth shooting activities, and it remains tied up in court due to a lawsuit filed by gun-rights advocates.
Unlike the first pass of California’s law, HB 0218 included an exemption for “communications or promotional materials regarding lawful recreational activity with a firearm such as, but not limited to, practice shooting at targets on established public or private target ranges or hunting, trapping, or fishing in accordance with the Wildlife Code or the Fish and Aquatic Life Code.” That appears to have headed off the same sort of sport shooting shutdowns California experienced in the wake of its law.
But NSSF spokesperson Mark Oliva told The Reload the law could also impact youth shooting sports leagues in ways not yet fully appreciated by organizations like Tri’s.
“NSSF has heard from industry members in Illinois about their concerns and the vulnerability this puts them in by ill-defined and amorphous definitions of what determines if advertising is targeted at minors,” Oliva said.
For instance, though the law created a carve-out for marketing and promoting lawful activities such as hunting and target shooting to minors, whether or not the equipment needed to participate in those activities is covered remains a grey area.
“The law specifically bans firearm-related products offered in sizes designed to be used by minors,” he said. “Taken as written, this could apply to youth-sized stocks on rifles or shotguns.”
Oliva argued firearms businesses may be unable to advertise the equipment needed for young residents to participate in shooting sports.
“This law could certainly have the same chilling effect on participation in the youth shooting sports [as the California law], and I strongly believe that’s what it is intended to do,” he said. “Illinois lawmakers, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, want to eliminate the conversation and the interest of today’s youth from growing up with an interest and respect for Second Amendment rights.”
The NSSF is asking for the law to be declared unconstitutional and for the state of Illinois to cover the group’s legal expenses.
HB 0218 was officially signed into law by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (D.) at an event hosted by the gun-control group Moms Demand Action over the weekend. The bill, dubbed the “Firearm Industry Responsibility Act,” creates a civil cause of action for firearms-related advertising that state officials determine “endangers the safety or health of the public,” is designed to encourage minors to purchase a firearm, or encourages “paramilitary or private militia activity.” He argued the bill is intended to hold gun makers to the same standards as other industries.
“We hold opioid manufacturers accountable. Vaping companies accountable. Predatory lenders accountable. Gun manufacturers shouldn’t get to hide from the law—and now, they won’t be able to,” Pritzker said in a statement after the bill signing. “Here’s to an Illinois where everyone feels safe in every corner of our great state.”
The law adds Illinois to a growing list of states that have enacted policies to make it easier to sue gun dealers and manufacturers. Gun-control advocates and blue-state lawmakers have increasingly turned to passing new policies to circumvent the PLCAA and allow lawsuits against gun businesses for creating a “public nuisance” or for failing to implement “reasonable controls” against straw purchases and gun trafficking. The addition of advertising prohibitions tailored toward children has been relatively recent.
Proponents of the strategy liken it to advertising restrictions on other products that adults use, such as tobacco.
“As a society, we long ago established that it is irresponsible, unsafe and illegal to allow certain entities to target our children with their marketing,” Don Harmon (D.), President of the Illinois Senate, said. “You see that with cigarettes and alcohol. This new law holds gun makers to the same standards, telling them to stop marketing to an audience that cannot legally purchase the product.”
Opponents contend that they violate the free speech rights of legal firearms businesses and can have unintended consequences like those seen with youth shooting events in California.
“They’re doing this by unconstitutionally depriving First Amendment rights of these businesses, societies and associations that would encourage youth to learn safe and responsible firearm ownership,” Oliva said. “Commercial speech is protected by the First Amendment. Seems to apply everywhere in the United States except Illinois and California, which will trample on all Constitutionally-protected rights to minimize and ultimately eliminate Second Amendment rights from succeeding generations.”
Neither Governor Pritzker nor the Illinois Attorney General’s Office responded to a request for comment on how the law would impact youth shooting sports or NSSF’s lawsuit.