Illinois Supreme Court upholds assault weapon ban, but federal test remains

State Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, holds a news conference at the Illinois State Fair Friday after the state Supreme Court sided against him by ruling that the state's ban on "assault weapons" does not run afoul of the state constitution. (Credit: Blueroomstream.com)
State Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, holds a news conference at the Illinois State Fair Friday after the state Supreme Court sided against him by ruling that the state's ban on "assault weapons" does not run afoul of the state constitution. (Credit: Blueroomstream.com)

By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
[email protected]

SPRINGFIELD – The state’s ban on high-powered weapons and high-capacity magazines passed a state constitutional test Friday as it awaits a potentially more daunting challenge on the federal stage.

In a split decision, the Democratically controlled Illinois Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the law characterizing dozens of firearms as “assault weapons” and preventing their manufacture and sale in Illinois does not constitute “special legislation.” Devices used to make guns fire more rapidly are also banned under the law.

The law remains in effect in Illinois despite other challenges at the federal level. Anyone who already owned one of the banned weapons prior to the law’s Jan. 10 effective date will be able to keep it but will be required to register it with the Illinois State Police.

Friday’s decision stems from a case brought by a group of plaintiffs led by state Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, who argued in legal filings that the law arbitrarily treated certain classes of Illinois differently – namely law enforcement officers, certain security guards, active-duty military personnel, and people who already owned those weapons before the law took effect – by exempting them from portions of the ban.

Caulkins’ attorneys argued that creating different classes for “similarly situated” Illinoisans was a violation of the equal protection clause in the state constitution.

Justice Elizabeth Rochford wrote the majority opinion rejecting that argument.

“Plaintiffs are not similarly situated to the trained professionals,” she wrote, with fellow Democrats Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis and Justices P. Scott Neville and Joy V. Cunningham concurring.

Rochford also addressed the argument pertaining to those who were “grandfathered in” to gun ownership by the law.

“To the extent plaintiffs claim they possess restricted items, they are not treated differently from the grandfathered individuals,” she wrote. “To the extent plaintiffs claim they do not possess restricted items, they are dissimilar to the grandfathered individuals, who have a reliance interest in retaining them.”

Justice Mary K. O’Brien, also a Democrat, issued her own dissent saying that the majority should have viewed it as special legislation because a law written more generally would have accomplished the same goal without treating different classes differently.

“When we limit people’s rights, even the rights we might not like, we have to do so in a way that honors the constitution,” she wrote.

The question the court answered, however, was separate from one based on the law’s compliance with the U.S. Constitution. That decision will be up to a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit federal appeals court, which heard oral arguments in the case on June 29 but has not set a timeline for a ruling.

The measure became law with mostly Democratic support in the wake of a mass shooting at a 2022 Independence Day parade in Highland Park that left seven people dead and dozens more injured or traumatized.

Gov. JB Pritzker, who signed the bill into law in January, issued a statement Friday calling it a “commonsense gun reform law to keep mass-killing machines off of our streets and out of our schools, malls, parks, and places of worship.”

“Illinoisans deserve to feel safe in every corner of our state — whether they are attending a Fourth of July Parade or heading to work — and that’s precisely what the Protect Illinois Communities Act accomplishes,” Pritzker said in the statement.

One day earlier, however, Pritzker conceded that the pending federal case – which is widely expected to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court – will ultimately “trump whatever happens in our state courts.”

“You just don’t know what’s going to happen in the federal courts,” Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference Thursday. “And as of late, the appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court are people who, unfortunately, want to take away the rights of parade-goers and people who live in our neighborhoods to live safely and to not have assault weapons that are attacking their local communities.”

Gun rights advocates like Caulkins are hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court – which has a 6-3 conservative majority – will take a more expansive view of the Second Amendment. Just days before the Highland Park shooting last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a New York state law restricting the right to carry concealed firearms, holding that such restrictions must be consistent with the nation’s “historical tradition” of firearm regulations.

The majority in Friday’s opinion, however, noted Caulkins “waived” his right to a Second Amendment challenge in state court, as “plaintiffs explicitly and repeatedly disclaimed any such argument in the circuit court.”

Republican Lisa Holder White wrote a separate dissenting opinion from O’Brien’s, joined by Justice David K. Overstreet.

Holder White argued that the process through which the gun ban passed ran afoul of the state constitution and suggested the court should rethink its “enrolled bill doctrine” – a long-held premise granting legislative leaders wide latitude in determining whether the legislature followed proper procedures.

“When, as in this case, the work of the legislature directly impacts a fundamental right, which this court has said the right to keep and bear arms is, the people of Illinois deserve nothing less than the procedural requirements of the constitution be followed by their elected representatives and senators,” Holder White wrote.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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