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Battle over Illinois' assault weapon ban will continue after Supreme Court declines to get involved

Groups challenging the law made their bid to the U.S. Supreme Court after last fall’s ruling from the federal appeals court in Chicago, which found that weapons covered by Illinois’ assault-weapons ban don’t have Second Amendment protection.

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Rifles on display in Law Weapons & Supply in Naperville, owned by Robert Bevis.

Rifles on display in Law Weapons & Supply in Naperville, owned by Robert Bevis.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

The U.S. Supreme Court will not consider challenges to Illinois’ controversial assault weapons ban, for now.

That doesn’t mean it’s not headed to the nation’s high court one day. In fact, a federal judge in southern Illinois has been preparing for a Sept. 16 trial in which he could more fully take on the question of whether the weapons ban passes constitutional muster.

Whatever that trial’s result, it could soon put Illinois’ law back on track to the Supreme Court, which Justice Clarence Thomas says must offer more guidance “on which weapons the Second Amendment covers.”

Thomas made his comment Tuesday as the Supreme Court declined to hear challenges to the assault-weapons ban enacted in January 2023. The news came days before the two-year anniversary of the Highland Park Fourth of July parade shooting, which inspired the law.

The Supreme Court’s order noted that Justice Samuel Alito would have heard the case. And it included a three-page statement from Thomas, who noted that the matter landed before the justices only in the form of a preliminary injunction challenge.

If the federal appeals court in Chicago “ultimately allows Illinois to ban America’s most common civilian rifle, we can — and should — review that decision once the cases reach a final judgment,” Thomas wrote.

Advocates for the law still celebrated the latest victory keeping the law on the books. Alex Gough, press secretary for Gov. J.B. Pritzker, said it “was the result of hundreds of hours of deliberation between legal experts, legislators and advocates.”

“This law remains in effect and will continue to protect Illinoisans from the constant fear of being gunned down in a place of worship, at a parade, or on a street corner,” Gough said.

State Rep. Bob Morgan, a Deerfield Democrat and chief sponsor of the law, wrote on X that the Supreme Court’s decision will help save “countless lives.” He acknowledged that “more federal trials remain, and our fight continues.”

Shortly after the Supreme Court announced its decision, National Foundation for Gun Rights Executive Director Hannah Hill wrote on X that “we will definitely be back.” Illinois State Rifle Association Executive Director Richard Pearson said in a statement that “we’re not giving up.”

Their organizations were among those that turned to the Supreme Court after a ruling last fall from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. That court ruled that weapons covered by the assault weapons ban don’t have Second Amendment protection.

Rather, it said such weapons and high-capacity magazines “are much more like machine guns and military-grade weaponry than they are like the many different types of firearms that are used for individual self-defense.”

The appellate court cautioned that it did not set out “to rule definitively on the constitutionality of the act,” though. Its opinion stemmed from lower courts’ rulings on requests for preliminary injunctions against the law. The 7th Circuit oversees Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Thomas noted the preliminary posture of the case Tuesday while otherwise criticizing the appellate court’s ruling. He complained that its “contrived ‘non-militaristic’ limitation on the Arms protected by the Second Amendment seems unmoored from both text and history” and added that, “even on its own terms, the Seventh Circuit’s application of its definition is nonsensical.”

Opponents of Illinois’ law say the 7th Circuit’s ruling flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s 2022 opinion in the case known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which said gun regulations must be “consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

The Supreme Court clarified its thinking on such questions in a separate ruling last month, though. In a case known as United States v. Rahimi, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that lower courts had “misunderstood the methodology of our recent Second Amendment cases.”

“These precedents were not meant to suggest a law trapped in amber,” Roberts wrote.

Thomas and his colleagues may seek other opportunities to give guidance on the question of which weapons are covered by the Second Amendment. Andrew Willinger, executive director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law, said challenges to such laws are also brewing in Maryland and in federal courts out west.

A Rhode Island ban on large-capacity magazines is also being challenged in federal court.

But the fight over Illinois’ assault-weapons ban will continue. U.S. District Judge Stephen McGlynn in East St. Louis has been preparing for trial Sept. 16 on an accelerated basis for a set of consolidated cases in his courtroom.

McGlynn briefly blocked enforcement of Illinois’ assault weapons ban last year. In doing so, he said the law not only restricts the right to defend oneself but, in some cases, “completely obliterated that right.”

David Sigale, an attorney based in Lombard who represents some of the plaintiffs before McGlynn, said he expects the judge to hold a status conference in the next few weeks to determine how the trial will move forward.

McGlynn’s decision in that trial is expected to address the merits of the case, including any lingering questions about the Second Amendment.

“The 7th Circuit made it clear that they wanted a trial on the merits, answering the overarching question in the case,” Sigale said. “And that is what Judge McGlynn intends to do.”

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles

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