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Top court revives suit on assault weapon ban

Published: Friday, April 6, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – A legal challenge to Cook County’s ban on assault weapons got new life Thursday when the Illinois Supreme Court reversed lower-court rulings that found the ban constitutional.

The unanimous decision sends the case back to trial court, where the two sides will present evidence on whether assault weapons qualify for full protection under the Second Amendment. Weapons that are “dangerous and unusual” – such as machine guns or sawed-off shotguns – can be restricted.

Lawyers on both sides of the issue insisted the evidence will support their position.

“I’m absolutely confident that at trial, the evidence will show they are not protected by the Second Amendment,” said Jonathan Baum, who led a team that wrote a brief supporting the ban. “These are weapons that are designed to kill many people very, very quickly.”

“They won’t be able to show that. It’s impossible,” countered Victor Quilici, an attorney for the three men challenging the ban.

Quilici said the ban’s definition of assault weapon is so broad that it covers a wide range of semiautomatic rifles that are common in target shooting, hunting and other routine activities. He predicted attorneys for Cook County will have trouble showing the ban is needed to curb violence because few gun crimes involve assault weapons.

The case is just the latest in a series of skirmishes over gun control in Illinois.

“I think Illinois is almost the epicenter” of the nation’s debate over gun control, said Todd Vandermyde, Illinois lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.

Cook County first banned the sale or possession of assault weapons in 1993. The ordinance included details of what constituted an assault weapon and examples of banned guns, but it was generally aimed at “high-capacity, rapid-fire” rifles and pistols. The latest version of the ordinance was approved in 2006 and added large ammunition magazines to the ban.

It was challenged by three Cook County residents who said they had perfectly valid reasons to own the prohibited weapons. They argued the law was too vague and too broad, with little connection to the goal of increasing public safety.

A trial court dismissed their challenge, as did a state appeals court. Then the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Chicago ordinance that essentially banned handguns. It held that the Second Amendment establishes a fundamental right to possess a handgun for self-defense. The Illinois appeals court reviewed the case in light of the new federal ruling and still dismissed the challenge.

The Illinois Supreme Court says the lower courts were too quick with their dismissals.

The justices said opponents of the ban should have been given a chance to show that assault weapons qualify for full Second Amendment protection.

Likewise, Cook County officials need a chance to demonstrate the ban actually can improve public safety.

In an opinion written by Justice Mary Jane Theis, the Supreme Court said it needs more facts before it can tell whether the guns “are well-suited for defense or sport or would be outweighed completely by the collateral damage resulting from their use, making them ‘dangerous and unusual.’”

The court rejected two arguments from opponents of the ban – that it is too vague and improperly treats different gun owners unequally.

Jonathan Lowy, an official with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said that even with Cook County’s ban on assault weapons in place, people can buy hundreds of different guns for protection, hunting, sports or anything else.

“That’s not good enough for the gun lobby,” Lowy said.

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