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Challenge of Illinois assault rifle ban moves back to trial judge

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday breathed new life into a challenge to Cook County’s ban on assault weapons.

In a unanimous opinion, the state’s high court sent the case back to a trial judge for further action, providing gun rights advocates a chance to present arguments that the county’s ban violates the U.S. Constitution’s 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.

A key issue the circuit court will take up is whether assault weapons, as defined by the county, could be considered “dangerous and unusual” enough to be outlawed, as machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and grenade launchers. Justices ruled more information needs to be heard by the trial judge before a decision can be made.

Both county officials and gun rights activists predicted they’d eventually prevail.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle noted the state supreme court upheld the dismissal of some lesser counts brought in the lawsuit, and vowed to “support all efforts to stem gun violence in our community, including the county law.”

The ruling comes as legislation is pending at the Capitol that would allow citizens to carry concealed weapons and as Mayor Rahm Emanuel has countered with his own set of anti-gun initiatives.

The county’s assault weapons ban took effect nearly 20 years ago and eventually was amended and renamed in memory of Blair Holt, a 16-year-old Julian High School student who was shot and killed as a bystander when gang violence erupted on a CTA bus in 2007.

U.S. Supreme Court cases that knocked down handgun bans in Chicago and Washington, D.C. play key roles in the Cook County case. The nation’s high court has determined that handguns represent a class of weapons that law-abiding citizens overwhelmingly choose for lawful self-defense, but one of the questions about the Cook ban is whether that same standard applies to assault weapons.

In an opinion written by Justice Mary Jane Theis, state justices said the Cook case needs to play out more in court before anyone can say conclusively whether assault weapons, as described in the county ban, would or would not be covered by the 2nd Amendment.

Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, welcome the ruling. He said the county ban is so broad it would extend to the AR-15 and other weapons “in common use” for hunting and sporting events.

Pearson, whose group is backing the case brought by three county residents, maintained the county ban paints too broad of a brush on different types of guns based on “the way they look, not what they do.”

County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who wrote the latest version of the ban, said the county’s prohibition was reviewed after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Chicago’s handgun ban. “We felt we were in a good position,” with no changes needed, said Suffredin, D-Evanston.

Suffredin said the ban can be enforced by local police and the county sheriff, but has been used very little while the issue is pending in court.

One caveat is the ban applies anywhere in the county except for cities and villages with their own assault weapons ban, including Chicago, said Patrick Driscoll, chief civil lawyer for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

In predicting the ban will be upheld, Driscoll underscored how the Illinois Supreme Court noted that governments still have the right to ban guns that are “dangerous and unusual weapons . . . not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.”

“It’s not a limitless right to bear arms,” Driscoll said. The opponents of the ban must prove that assault weapons, as Cook defines them, cannot be outlawed, he said.


©2012 the Chicago Tribune

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