Ruling puts Chicago gun ban in jeopardy

June 29, 2010 4:50:57 AM PDT
In another dramatic victory for firearm owners, the Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional Chicago's 28-year-old strict ban on handgun ownership, a potentially far-reaching case over the ability of state and local governments to enforce limits on weapons.

A conservative majority of justices, issuing a 5-4 decision on Monday, reiterated its two-year-old conclusion the Constitution gives individuals equal or greater power than states on the issue of possession of certain firearms for self-protection.

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said he was disappointed by the Supreme Court decision and noted that "the Supreme Court did not strike down any part of our ordinance."

He accepted, however, that the "current handgun ban is unenforceable."

Even though the gun ban doesn't seem to have had a notable effect on gun violence in its nearly 30 years, the mayor worries about the effect the ruling will have.

"Common sense tells you we need fewer guns on the streets, not more guns," said Daley. "I don't think we should be noted for killing more people in America than any other nation. We love to kill."

When enacted in 1982, Chicago's handgun ban --became the strictest in the country, and not only prohibits city residents from owning handguns for their own use even in their home, but also required existing gun owners to re-register their weapons every year.

While Mayor Daley and gun control advocates say the ban is an issue of public safety, some of those who believe in a citizen's right to bear arms see Monday's court ruling as a victory.

Lead plaintiff and Morgan Park resident Otis McDonald initially supported the ban years ago, but his attitude changed when he became a crime victim.

"It doesn't work simply because the senior citizens and law-abiding citizens like myself is being victimized by saying that you can't have a handgun in your own home," said McDonald. "Why tell me what I can't have in my own home? I'm not out there robbing nobody."

McDonald stood outside the Supreme Court Monday morning and said that the 5-4 decision eventually would protect law-abiding Chicagoan like himself.

Daley said the city would move to keep gun regulations in effect in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.

"On behalf of those who have lost their loved ones and friends to gun violence, we will never give in," said Daley.

Daley repeatedly expressed concerns over emergency personnel responding to homes where residents possessed guns, and the impact guns could have on the situations they respond to.

At the press conference, Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis said that the impact on current enforcement will not be as drastic as some people might think.

"People should not immediately think that now they can walk around the streets of Chicago with a weapon," said Weis. "That is not the case."

Officials said that the current ordinance still stands and will be enforced until the ordinance is struck down by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals or a new ordinance is put into effect. But there is not much doubt how that court will rule.

"Under the Supreme Court decision the outright ban is not reasonable and will be held unconstitutional on remand to the 7th Circuit," said Hal Krent, Kent College of Law.

Mara Georges, Chicago's top attorney, said during the afternoon press conference that new regulations will go before the City Council in an "expedited manner."

"We can do reasonable regulation. We can have registration requirements. We can have obligations that firearm owners have to meet," said Georges.

The Chicago City Council's Police and Fire Committee began working on new gun control restrictions Monday morning now that the city's current handgun ban appears to have become illegal.

Aldermen are considering various measures, including limiting the number of firearms that can be owned, requiring insurance and training for gun-owners and creating a gun registry.

On Tuesday, a City Council committee will consider new handgun regulations including registration, fees, laws prohibiting assault weapons and a possible controversial requirement that gun owners buy liability insurance.

"This is a huge issue that all the city residents are concerned about. We will be remiss if we did not try to craft something strong to protect everyone," said Ald. Anthony Beale, Police and Fire Committee chairman.

The Illinois State Rifle Association (ISRA) quickly held a media event Monday applauding the decision. Plaintiffs in the case stood with the association, which fought 28 years to repeal Chicago's ban. The ISRA is now primed for a renewed battle against the city's effort to regulate handgun possession.

"There is a higher court than the one which has run this city for the past 27 years. That higher court is the Constitution of the United States," said Colleen Lawson, gun case plaintiff.

"If the mayor or City Council decide they want to pass more ordinances, then we will continue to do what we think is the right thing for citizens of Chicago," said Donald Moran, Illinois State Rifle Association.

Some family members of those killed in gun violence spoke at Mayor Daley's Monday press conference, expressing dismay that it may now become easier to get access to handguns.

"Easy access to guns, you know, this is a slap in the face to parents, those of us who have lost children to gun violence," said Annette Nance-Holt, the mother of Blair Holt, a Chicago Public Schools student who was shot and killed on a CTA bus in May 2007.

The Supreme Court's decision holding that Americans have the right to own a gun for self-defense anywhere they live advances a recent trend by the John Roberts-led bench to embrace gun rights.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court, said that the Second Amendment right "applies equally to the federal government and the states."

The court was split along familiar ideological lines, with five conservative-moderate justices in favor of gun rights and four liberals opposed. Chief Justice Roberts voted with the majority.

Two years ago, the court declared that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess guns, at least for purposes of self-defense in the home.

That ruling applied only to federal laws. It struck down a ban on handguns and a trigger lock requirement for other guns in the District of Columbia, a federal city with unique legal standing. At the same time, the court was careful not to cast doubt on other regulations of firearms here.

Gun rights proponents almost immediately filed a federal lawsuit challenging gun control laws in Chicago and its suburb of Oak Park, Ill, where handguns have been banned for nearly 30 years. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence says those laws appear to be the last two remaining outright bans.

"We're going to be looking at whatever the city passes on an individual basis, and if we feel it does not meet a compelling government interest and it's not the least restrictive means to further whatever that interest is, we'll be challenging it in court," said attorney David Sigale at the ISRA press event.

"I'm looking forward very much to being able to protect my children with a handgun, which will allow me to call 911 with the other hand," said Lawson. Lower federal courts upheld the two laws, noting that judges on those benches were bound by Supreme Court precedent and that it would be up to the high court justices to ultimately rule on the true reach of the Second Amendment.

The Supreme Court already has said that most of the guarantees in the Bill of Rights serve as a check on state and local, as well as federal, laws.

Monday's decision did not explicitly strike down the Chicago area laws. Instead, it ordered a federal appeals court to reconsider its ruling. But it left little doubt that the statutes eventually would fall.

Still, Alito noted that the declaration that the Second Amendment is fully binding on states and cities "limits (but by no means eliminates) their ability to devise solutions to social problems that suit local needs and values."

Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, each wrote a dissent. Stevens, in his final day on the bench after more than 34 years, said that unlike the Washington case, Monday's decision "could prove far more destructive -- quite literally -- to our nation's communities and to our constitutional structure."

The ruling seemed unlikely to resolve questions and ongoing legal challenges about precisely what sort of gun control laws are permissible.

The response of the District to the court's ruling in 2008 is illustrative of the uncertainty.

Local lawmakers in Washington, D.C. imposed a series of regulations on handgun ownership, including requirements to register weapons and to submit to a multiple-choice test, fingerprinting and a ballistics test. Owners must also show they have gotten classroom instruction on handling a gun and have spent at least an hour on the firing range. Some 800 people have now registered handguns in the city.

Anticipating a similar result in their case, Chicago lawmakers are looking at even more stringent regulations.

But the new regulations themselves are likely to themselves be the subject of lawsuits, a fact noted by the dissenting justices Monday. Already in Washington, Dick Heller, the plaintiff in the original case before the Supreme Court, has sued the city over its new laws.

Heller argues that the stringent restrictions violate the intent of the high court's decision. So far a federal judge has upheld the limitations, but the case has been appealed.

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said his politically powerful group "will continue to work at every level to insure that defiant city councils and cynical politicians do not transform this constitutional victory into a practical defeat through Byzantine regulations and restrictions."

Dan Moran, the president of the Illinois State Rifle Association, suggested the city redirect resources it had used on gun control efforts to other causes.

"What I would like to suggest to the mayor, though, is he take those millions of dollars he spent in litigation or continues to spend in litigation, use that to improve his educational system in the City of Chicago," said Moran.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an ardent proponent of gun control, said the ruling allows cities "to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and terrorists while at the same time respecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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