A U.S. appeals court Monday upheld a Chicago suburb’s assault weapons ban that had become a focus in the statewide debate over gun control, though a dissenting judge sharply criticized the majority opinion.
In a 2-to-1 decision, a panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago concluded the city of Highland Park’s 2013 ban does not violate the Second Amendment, saying municipalities ought to have leeway in deciding how to regulate firearms.
“If a ban on semi-automatic guns and large-capacity magazines reduces the perceived risk from a mass shooting, and makes the public feel safer as a result, that’s a substantial benefit,” the 12-page majority opinion says.
The legal battle over Highland Park’s ordinance drew national players in the gun debate, including a brief filed with the 7th Circuit defending the ban from the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and briefs opposing it filed by weapons manufacturers, including Sig Sauer Inc., and Smith & Wesson Corp.
Monday’s decision sets precedent not just for Illinois but for two other states in the judicial circuit — Indiana and Wisconsin. Of Illinois’ 1,300 municipalities, no more than a few dozen have regulations or bans similar to Highland Park’s.
Among other arguments from the court majority was that would-be gun owners in the northern Chicago suburb still had more than ample options under Highland Park law to protect themselves, including purchasing a handgun.
But in his hard-hitting dissent, Judge Daniel A. Manion said the U.S. Constitution leaves it to individuals, not elected officials, to determine which guns do or don’t offer the right degree of self-defense.
“To limit self-defense to only those methods acceptable to the government” creates an “enormous transfer of authority from the citizens of this country to the government — a result directly contrary to our constitution and to our political tradition,” Manion wrote.
Illinois State Rifle Association and Highland Park resident Arie Friedman challenged the ban. Asked about an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Richard Pearson, the ISRA’s president, said, “I’m sure there will be an appeal.”
Steven Elrod, the corporation counsel for the city of Highland Park, heralded the appellate court’s finding.
“We are delighted,” he said. Asked if he thought the ban would survive an appeal to the nation’s highest court, he said, “I have every confidence that the ordinance will continue to be found to be constitutional.”
Attorneys for Highland Park had argued that even though the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Washington, D.C.’s, sweeping handgun ban and recognized a right to carry firearms in a key 2008 decision, it also left open the possibility that lawmakers could ban certain types of weapons. Monday’s majority opinion agreed.
Manion, though, said prohibiting an entire class of weapons — in this case, assault weapons — went too far.
“Outside of weapons deemed dangerous or unusual, there is no historical tradition supporting wholesale prohibitions of entire classes of weapons,” he wrote. “The right to self-defense is largely meaningless if it does not include the right to choose the most effective means of defending oneself.”
Manion was appointed to the federal bench in Chicago by Republican President Ronald Reagan, as was the author of the majority opinion, Frank Easterbrook. Ann Claire Williams, an appointee of Democrat Bill Clinton, was the second vote in favor of upholding Highland Park’s ban.
Pearson, of the rifle association, said the 7th Circuit has historically backed firearms restrictions and said the decision wasn’t a surprise.
“It always happens that way in Illinois,” he said.
Highland Park was one of several Illinois communities two years ago to debate whether or not to regulate or ban assault weapons when state lawmakers made it legal to carry concealed weapons in public. The state bill included a provision that gave local communities 10 days to come up with an ordinance or forfeit their right to do so.
Associated Press writer Sara Burnett contributed to this report.
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