Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Illinois' days as the only state in the nation to forbid public possession of a firearm could be numbered after a federal appellate court threw out a state ban and gave lawmakers six months to figure out a way to let people legally carry guns.
The 2-1 ruling Tuesday by a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in Chicago affirmed a constitutional right to have ready-to-use firearms for self-defense outside the home.
Gun owner groups declared a historic victory, claiming leverage to limit restrictions on who can possess a weapon as negotiations on a new state law unfold. Gun control advocates acknowledged the need for a revised concealed carry law but said the court's ruling still allowed for strict limitations.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan, representing the state, said her office is studying whether to seek a rehearing, ask the full complement of 7th Circuit judges to rule or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, as some gun control groups have advocated. Other gun control supporters feared an unsuccessful appeal could undo firearms restrictions across the country.
As Madigan regroups, the National Rifle Association, which provided some legal muscle in the case, boasted of a victory in a state where gun control forces long have held sway.
"We went to court," said Todd Vandermyde, an NRA lobbyist. "We won. … Illinois will have a carry law by the Fourth of July. And if the mayor or the governor or anybody else doesn't like it, well, that's just too bad."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a strong gun control advocate, said through a spokesman that he was "disappointed with the court's decision." In March, Emanuel introduced a City Council-approved resolution opposing state legislation that would have allowed people to carry firearms in public.
The ruling also could effectively undermine part of Chicago's gun ordinance, which prohibits possession of a registered firearm outside the home. The opinion could make it legal for a Chicagoan with a registered weapon to take it outside — something now prohibited by the city, even if it's on the owner's own outdoor porch or yard.
At issue is a provision of Illinois' five-decade-old criminal code involving the unlawful use of a weapon. Under the law, it is illegal for someone to carry or possess a firearm in a vehicle or conceal one on his or her body except on the person's own land or place of business. Exemptions exist for law enforcement, licensed hunters engaged in their activity and on established target ranges.
The appellate court overturned decisions by two downstate federal judges that upheld the state law. The new ruling concluded that if Illinois' law was "demonstrably superior," then at least one other state would have adopted it.
"We are disinclined to engage in another round of historical analysis to determine whether eighteenth-century America understood the Second Amendment to include a right to bear guns outside the home. The Supreme Court has decided that the amendment confers a right to bear arms for self-defense, which is as important outside the home as inside," Judge Richard Posner wrote for the majority.
"The theoretical and empirical evidence (which overall is inconclusive) is consistent with concluding that a right to carry firearms in public may promote self-defense. Illinois had to provide us with more than merely a rational basis for believing that its uniquely sweeping ban is justified by an increase in public safety. It has failed to meet this burden," wrote Posner, a renowned legal scholar and veteran appellate judge who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
In the opinion, Posner wrote that "a Chicagoan is a good deal more likely to be attacked on a sidewalk in a rough neighborhood than in his apartment on the 35th floor of the Park Tower."
"A gun is a potential danger to more people if carried in public than just kept in the home," Posner wrote. "But the other side of this coin is that knowing that many law-abiding citizens are walking the streets armed may make criminals timid."
In her dissent, Judge Ann Williams said the state Legislature acted constitutionally to prohibit firearms in public.
"Guns in public expose all nearby to risk, and the risk of accidental discharge or bad aim has lethal consequences," Williams wrote. "Allowing public carry of ready-to-use guns means that risk is borne by all in Illinois, including the vast majority of its citizens who choose not to have guns."
Illinois became the last state to prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons when Wisconsin lifted its ban last year.
The ruling effectively adds a new and intense political controversy onto the plate of a General Assembly already grappling with efforts to cope with the nation's most underfunded public pension system and attempts to legalize same-sex marriage and expand gambling.
The issue of gun control has been politically vexing for decades in Springfield — defined more by geography and sometimes race rather than political party.
While support for strong gun laws generally has come from Chicago politicians, including Emanuel and his predecessor Richard M. Daley, Downstate lawmakers traditionally have backed gun-owner rights, including concealed carry legislation.