As deadline looms, assault weapons registration rules still unresolved

As deadline looms, assault weapons registration rules still unresolved

By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
[email protected]

SPRINGFIELD – Firearm owners in Illinois will have to wait at least another month before knowing exactly what items they must register with the Illinois State Police under the state’s assault weapons ban, even as the deadline for submitting those registrations is less than three weeks away.

The General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, or JCAR – a bipartisan group that has oversight authority of state agency rulemaking – declined again Tuesday to take action on a proposed set of final rules, saying instead it will consider the matter again at its next meeting Jan. 16 in Springfield.

“Obviously, there’ve been a lot of questions placed on the record today. Some have been answered; some will require some further research and reporting back to the committee,” JCAR co-chair Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, said at the end of a lengthy discussion over the proposed rules.

Also on Tuesday, however, a federal judge in East St. Louis was asked to block the registration process entirely. And one of the plaintiffs in a series of lawsuits challenging the assault weapons ban said it is preparing to take its case the U.S. Supreme Court to review the law.

Federal Hearing | East St. Louis

On Tuesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Steven McGlynn declined to issue an injunction to delay the Jan. 1 registration requirement under the state’s assault weapons ban.

Lawyers for federal firearms licensees, gun rights advocates, gun dealers and three individual gun owners argued that the rules governing the registration of already-owned assault weapons are vague and the state failed to give proper notice to the owners of those weapons.

Sean Brady, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that the Illinois State Police was still seeking to modify the rules on Tuesday, underscoring the need for an injunction to halt implementation before the Jan. 1, 2024 deadline.

Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wells argued enacting the entire statute should not be delayed due to “the inevitable questions that will follow.”

McGlynn said the process should go forward, adding that entering an injunction would create additional obstacles.

In April, McGlynn issued an injunction, blocking the enforcement of the Illinois’ assault weapons ban, known as Protect Illinois Communities Act, or PICA, and found it was likely to be found unconstitutional. Two previous attempts to block the law in northern Illinois courts were unsuccessful.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago overturned McGlynn’s injunction in May.

At issue is a provision of the state’s assault weapons ban, formally known as the Protect Illinois Communities Act, which lawmakers passed, and Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law in January.

That law bans the purchase, sale, possession or manufacture of a long list of firearms that it defines as “assault weapons,” along with large-capacity magazines, certain kinds of firearm attachments and certain types of ammunition.

Lawmakers passed the ban in January in response to a long series of mass shootings around the country, most notably one at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park in 2022 that left seven people dead and scores more injured or traumatized.

One provision of that law, however, allows people who already owned banned items before the law took effect to keep them, provided they file affidavits with the Illinois State Police to disclose that they own those items and receive an endorsement on their Firearm Owners Identification card.

The law directed ISP to adopt administrative rules for the registration process. Although ISP has not yet implemented permanent rules, it did publish temporary emergency rules that have been in place since Oct. 1.

One reason for the delay, ISP’s acting chief legal counsel Suzanne Bond told lawmakers Tuesday, was the flurry of lawsuits in both state and federal courts that have been filed challenging the law. In one of those lawsuits, a federal judge in East St. Louis issued a temporary injunction blocking enforcement of the law, an order that was later overturned by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

“That also meant that we were not in a position to file emergency rules until those issues had been resolved,” Bond said Tuesday. “And so by the time that those issues were resolved, we needed to exercise the authority the legislature had given us to file both emergency rules and proposed rules.”

Under Illinois law, state agencies can act unilaterally under certain circumstances to adopt emergency rules, but those rules can only remain in effect for 150 days. After that, they must either be replaced by permanent rules or allowed to expire.

But the emergency rules on weapons registration prompted strong resistance from gun rights advocates as well as confusion over the fine details about which items are covered by the requirement and what items are exempt.

After an initial review of the proposed rules by JCAR in October, ISP agreed to hold a series of additional public hearings to get feedback. Those hearings, Bond said, resulted in numerous changes to the proposed rules.

“We received hundreds of comments, as you might imagine, in response to the three public hearings that we held,” she said. “Predominantly many of the changes that we made were to flesh out additional definitions with respect to some of the exemptions to further explain our understanding of those exemptions and how they were to be applied within our statutory authority.”

But at Tuesday’s JCAR hearing, Republican lawmakers continued asking questions about how the rules would be implemented, including about what ISP would do with the data it collects from people who register their weapons if the law is eventually declared unconstitutional.

“I believe we will be looking to the court to guide us on what they want us to do with that information,” Bond said. “I would hope that that wouldn’t have to come from the legislature. We would hope that in in deciding this litigation, the courts would direct the state police on what to do with that data.”

Although a judge in the Southern District of Illinois ruled in April that the assault weapons ban was likely unconstitutional under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, two different federal judges in the Northern District reached the opposite conclusion in separate challenges. That resulted in all three cases being consolidated before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a 2-1 ruling in November, the 7th Circuit upheld the law, but one of the lead plaintiffs in the challenges, the National Association for Gun Rights, requested an “en banc” review of that decision by all 14 judges on the appellate court. Meanwhile, that group also filed motions with the 7th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court asking again for a restraining order blocking enforcement of the law pending that appeal.

On Monday, the 7th Circuit denied the request for an en banc rehearing, paving the way for the gun rights group to request a final review of the law by the Supreme Court.

Hannah Hill, executive director of the association’s legal arm, the National Foundation for Gun Rights, said in an email Tuesday that the group would file what’s known as a “writ of certiorari” to request a Supreme Court review within the next 90 days.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations 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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