On Thursday, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a state prohibition on firearm possession within 1,000 feet of a public park violates the Second Amendment. The case is People v. Chairez.
Chairez pleaded guilty in 2013 to possessing a firearm within 1,000 feet of Virgil Gilman Trail, a public park in Aurora, IL. He later sought to void the conviction, arguing that the state’s 1,000 foot exclusion zones around various public places essentially amounted to a ban on carrying firearms in public, a right that has been expressly recognized by Illinois’ high court.
In resolving the case, the justices limited their consideration to the exclusion zone around public parks, as that was the only such zone implicated by Chairez’s own conviction.
The court noted that whether or not the exclusion zone itself – rather than the actual park – could be considered a “sensitive place,” it still had to conduct a Second Amendment analysis. In other words, the court found that language in District of Columbia of Columbia v. Heller deeming restrictions on certain “sensitive places” to be “presumptively lawful” did not conclusively exempt restrictions in those places from some sort of scrutiny under the Second Amendment.
The court applied what it called a “sliding scale of intermediate scrutiny” standard of review, taking into account how closely and pervasively the restriction affects the core right of self-defense and whose rights are implicated.
It answered the first question by noting that the contested restriction covers “vast number of public areas across the state,” particularly in urban locales. Within those areas, moreover, the restriction amounts to an outright ban on carrying usable firearms for self-defense.
Answering the second question, the court found the prohibition provided no exception for law-abiding individuals.
It, therefore, characterized the restriction’s burden on Second Amendment rights as “severe” and subject to “elevated intermediate scrutiny analysis.” This requires the state to show a very strong public-interest justification and a close fit between the government’s means and its end, as well as proving that the “public’s interests are strong enough to justify so substantial an encumbrance on individual Second Amendment rights.”
The court found that the state failed to offer any “useful statistics or empirically supported conclusions” to justify its asserted public safety rational for the contested gun ban. “Without specific data or other meaningful evidence,” Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier wrote, “we see no direct correlation between the information the State provides and its assertion that a 1000-foot firearm ban around a public park protects children, as well as other vulnerable persons, from firearm violence.”
The court also rejected the idea that the ban was not overly burdensome because there were still other places in the state where the individuals could exercise their right to bear arms in public. On this point, the court reiterated a prior holding that emphasized constitutional rights must be respected in all parts of the state, including in densely-populated cities like Chicago, which alone has more than 600 parks. It further noted that the ban could swiftly transform innocent behavior “into culpable conduct if an individual unknowingly crosses into a[n unmarked] firearm restriction zone.” The result could “create a chilling effect on the second amendment when an otherwise law-abiding individual may inadvertently violate the 1000-foot firearm-restricted zones by just turning a street corner.”
Along with the Ohio case we report on separately this week, Chairez provides an encouraging example of the possibilities of courts treating the right to keep and bear arms as the fundamental civil right the U.S. Supreme Court has already deemed it to be. In this respect, state courts may actually be more in tune with this constitutional provision than their counterparts in the lower federal courts.
While the Chairez opinion did not explicitly cover other exclusion zones – including those around schools, courthouses, public transportation facilities, or public housing agency residential units – it sets a high standard for the state’s justification of those prohibitions. It may well be that Illinois residents will soon find many more areas of the state accessible to them as they exercise the constitutional right to bear arms.