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Chicago's Firearm Transfer Ban Falls to Second Amendment Ruling

Friday, January 17, 2014

Things are looking up for gun owners in Illinois.  On January 6, 2014, even as some 4,500 concealed carry applications flooded the state's online portal on its first full day of operation, Obama-appointed U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang of the Northern District of Illinois issued a significant opinion that invalidated Chicago's ban on firearm sales and transfers within the city. The suit was brought by the Illinois Association of Firearms Retailers and three individuals, with the backing of NRA.  

The Chicago transfer ban was part of a series of ordinances the city hastily enacted after its total ban on handgun possession was invalidated by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2010 opinion in McDonald v. Chicago. Chicago's efforts to be the nation’s most oppressive jurisdiction for gun owners have yielded other important victories for the Second Amendment.  These included the Seventh Circuit’s holding in 2011’s Ezell v. Chicago that Chicago’s ban on discharge (notwithstanding its requirement that residents obtain live-fire training as a condition of owning a gun in the city) was unconstitutional. Other aspects of the city's wide-ranging gun control regime have been whittled down in response to litigation and the broad preemption provisions of Illinois’ recently-enacted Firearm Concealed Carry Act (the result of yet another successful Second Amendment case in the Seventh Circuit, 2011’s Shepard v. Madigan).  The transfer ban remained, however, a symbol of the same political denial and impudence that have ironically helped move the Second Amendment needle in the right direction through litigation time and again. 

The ordinance at issue flatly stated: “no firearm may be sold, acquired or otherwise transferred within the city, except through inheritance of the firearm.”  Chicago attempted to justify the ordinance by, among other things, pointing out that residents could obtain firearms outside the city’s borders.  The city also insisted that the ordinance increased the “transaction costs” of the firearms trade, making the acquisition of firearms by criminals more expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous (because they would have to travel through high-crime areas infested by rival gangs to buy guns). Chicago additionally claimed gun stores “are dangerous in and of themselves and cannot be safely regulated.”

The court called Chicago’s argument that it could ban firearm sales as long as guns were available elsewhere “profoundly mistaken.”  “Second Amendment rights,” Judge Chang wrote, “must be guaranteed within a specified geographic unit—be it city or state.” 

The court also determined that the restriction had to pass a high level of scrutiny (although not quite “strict scrutiny”), because the type of regulation at issue was unknown to the framers of the Second Amendment and because it broadly prohibited even law-abiding Chicagoans from exercising an essential component of the rights protected by the Second Amendment, the acquisition of firearms.  Regarding Chicago’s purported justification of increasing transaction costs, the court noted that the evidence showed few criminals actually purchase firearms directly from legitimate dealers. Thus, “residents who seek to legally buy a gun bear more of the share of the added transaction costs in time, effort, and danger than gang members or would-be criminals ….”  The city, the court wrote, “cannot justify its ban on legitimate gun sales and transfers with overinclusive means that impact more law-abiding citizens than criminals.”  

Examining another Chicago claim that the ban helped maintain the city’s “low household gun-ownership rate,” the court opined: “It is … doubtful that minimizing household gun ownership is, after Heller and McDonald, even a valid basis for gun regulation: possession of a gun for self-defense in the home is the core right protected by the Second Amendment, so trying to minimize the exercise of that right cannot be a valid basis for the sales-and-transfer ban.”

Demonstrating the importance of proper scrutiny, the case was distinguishable from other recent opinions applying only “intermediate scrutiny” (for example, the recent opinion largely upholding New York’s SAFE Act) by its insistence that the city do more than just produce “expert” opinions claiming the restrictions could inhibit crime. Rather, the court refused to ignore the effects the restrictions also had on law-abiding residents and legitimate activity.  According to Judge Chang: “If the City is concerned about reducing criminal access to firearms, either through legitimate retail transactions or via thefts from gun stores, it may enact more appropriately tailored measures.”

Because Chicago does not otherwise regulate firearm sales, the court on its own initiative stayed the effect of its judgment so the city could decide whether to appeal the case or pursue legislative remedies through more narrowly-tailored regulation. The city was given until January 13 to request an additional stay.

Besides paving the way for lawful firearms commerce in Chicago, Judge Chang’s decision also shows the possibilities of a court taking the Second Amendment seriously.  We will closely follow this case and continue to keep you informed of significant developments. 

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