Your NPR news source
Assault weapons and hand guns are seen for sale at Capitol City Arms Supply in Springfield, Ill.

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

Seth Perlman

Illinois Supreme Court upholds state’s semiautomatic weapons ban Friday

Illinois’ highest court upheld the state’s ban on the sale of assault weapons in a 4-3 ruling Friday.

The decision came in a lawsuit brought earlier this year by a central Illinois lawmaker who argued that banning the sale of high-powered rifles and high-capacity magazines 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 ban after it was signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Jan. 10. Some of those 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 commonsense 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, had tapped his wealth last year to help boost two candidates for the state Supreme Court, Mary K. O’Brien and Elizabeth Rochford, that 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, with Rochford upholding the law and O’Brien writing her own dissent.

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.

Caulkins said 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.”

Instead, the majority opinion stated the ban did not violate the equal protection and special legislation clauses of the state constitution.

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

“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, 2024.

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.”

The court’s two Republican justices, Lisa Holder White and David Overstreet, joined in a dissent stating the ban should be overturned on procedural grounds. In contrast to the majority, they believed legislators had failed to follow a constitutional requirement that proposed bill be read on three different days in each chamber.

“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 stated she believed the provisions of the law will fail to do what supporters hope.

“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,” O’Brien 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.”

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 to the ban 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.

The Latest
Burke, 80, Chicago’s longest-serving City Council member, is two weeks away from his June 24 sentencing hearing. Burke’s lawyers have asked the judge to give their client no prison time.
In a subpoena obtained by WBEZ, the feds wanted a list of county documents about a hack that potentially affected 1.2 million patients here.
The seventh annual “We Walk for Her” march was held by the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization.
The legislation, which has bipartisan support, would take guns from people with restraining orders against them.
“It was indeed the most controversial thing that I had done,” said John Choi, the top prosecutor of Ramsey County, which covers St. Paul, Minnesota.