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Illinois Supreme Court upholds state’s semiautomatic weapons ban

Assault weapons and hand guns are seen for sale at Capitol City Arms Supply in Springfield, Ill.
Seth Perlman
Associated Press
Assault weapons and hand guns are seen for sale at Capitol City Arms Supply in Springfield, Ill. 

Illinois’ highest court upheld the state’s ban on the sale of assault weapons Friday.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought earlier this year by a central Illinois lawmaker who argued that banning the sale of high-powered rifles and high-capacity magazines violates the state constitution.

The suit, by state Rep. Dan Caulkins of Decatur, was part of a flurry of challenges to the constitutionality of the ban after it was signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Jan. 10.

Lawmakers approved the ban about six months after a gunman killed seven people and wounded more than 48 others at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade using a high-powered rifle that was outfitted with a large magazine.

Police collected 83 shell casings after the shooting and said the shooter fired a 30-round magazine, then fired two more.

The law bans the sale, delivery, import and purchase of guns that the law defines as “assault weapons.” It also makes devices known as switches, which modify guns to allow them to fire more rapidly, illegal because they turn firearms into fully automatic weapons.

Macon County Judge Rodney Forbes ruled in favor of Caulkins’ lawsuit on March 3, writing in a brief decision that the ban violated the equal protection and special legislation clauses of the Illinois Constitution.

The state Supreme Court reversed Forbes’ decision Friday in a 4-3 ruling.

Notably, however, the court did not rule on whether the ban violated the right to bear arms in the state’s constitution, stating that the group that brought the suit had made the argument “only in passing.”

Instead, the majority opinion stated the ban did not violate the equal protection and special legislation clauses of the state constitution.

Writing for the majority, Justice Elizabeth Rochford stated that the ban’s restrictions on who can own an assault weapon “neither deny equal protection nor constitute special legislation because plaintiffs have not sufficiently alleged that they are similarly situated to and treated differently from the exempt classes.”

Caulkins’ lawsuit had argued that the law was unequally applied because anyone who had a semiautomatic weapon on the date the law took effect could keep it, although they’re restricted in selling or transferring such weapons. They must register their guns with the Illinois State Police by Jan. 1, 2024.

The ban also exempts law enforcement officers, including those who are retired, and on-duty military personnel. Critics argued many civilians have more experience and training in handling semiautomatic weapons than law enforcement officers.

Pritzker and Attorney General Kwame Raoul, both Democrats, immediately appealed the judge’s decision to the state’s justices. Democrats have a 5-2 majority on the state Supreme Court.

Battles over the constitutionality of the law are still pending in federal court.

Matthew Hendrickson is a staff reporter and editor for the Chicago Sun-Times