Appeals court upholds Chicago’s strict gun laws

The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld strict gun control ordinances in Chicago and suburban Oak Park, Ill., setting the stage for a Supreme Court battle over whether the 2nd Amendment and its protection for gun owners extends to state and municipal laws.

In a 3-0 decision, the judges said they were bound by legal precedents that held the 2nd Amendment applied only to federal laws. Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, in January joined a three-judge panel in New York that came to the same conclusion. Last week, activists cited that decision in calling her an “anti-gun radical.”

Tuesday’s decision in the Chicago case was written by Judge Frank H. Easterbrook and joined by Judges Richard A. Posner and William J. Bauer. All three were Republican appointees.

One of the lawyers for the Chicago gun owners said he planned to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

Last year, the high court in a 5-4 decision said the 2nd Amendment “right to keep and bear arms” protects an individual’s right to have a gun for self-defense. Before, many judges had said the amendment protected only a state’s right to maintain a militia. Though the case gained wide attention, the ruling struck down a handgun ban only in the District of Columbia, a federal enclave. The justices did not decide whether the 2nd Amendment applied the same way throughout the country.


Until the middle of the 20th century, most parts of the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government, not to states or localities. In a step-by-step process, however, the high court decided that most of the rights in the Bill of Rights were fundamental to liberty and, therefore, limit the action of states and municipalities.

There are exceptions. For example, the 5th Amendment says persons can be charged with a serious crime only by “indictment of a grand jury,” but this right was not extended to the states.

Gun-rights advocates have been focused on the issue since last year’s high court ruling.

“We believe it is time for this issue to be decided,” said Alan Gura, a Virginia lawyer who won the D.C. gun case last year. He said he would file a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a review of the Chicago ruling.

Gura represented four gun owners who are challenging the near ban on private handguns in Chicago. In April, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco came to the opposite conclusion on the 2nd Amendment. Its judges said that because the right to bear arms is a fundamental right, it should apply to local and state ordinances.

Easterbrook questioned whether lower courts should make such a leap.

“Federalism is an older and more deeply rooted tradition than is the right to carry any particular kind of weapon,” he wrote. Deciding what is a fundamental right is “for the justices rather than a court of appeals, " he said.

The high court will not consider an appeal in the Chicago case until the fall. By then, Sotomayor may well be one of the justices considering the issue.

“This ruling is significant because it means that we can continue to enforce our gun ordinance while this case progresses,” said Jennifer Hoyle, spokeswoman for Chicago’s Law Department, said in a written statement.

“We recognize, though, that this fight is not over, and we are prepared to go to the Supreme Court if the court agrees to take the case,” she added, noting that in the Washington, D.C., case, the Supreme Court determined that “reasonable” gun restrictions would pass constitutional muster.

In December, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said he was looking at less-sweeping gun control measures in the wake of the D.C. ruling. Daley specifically referred to new laws in the nation’s capital requiring gun owners to go through five hours of safety training, register their firearms every three years and undergo criminal background checks every six years. Hoyle could not immediately verify the status of those efforts.

Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Assn., said he predicted last year that the case would go to the Supreme Court.

“It was not unexpected,” Pearson said. “The only surprise to this was it happened so quickly.” Oral arguments were held before the 7th Circuit on May 26, he said. Typically, decisions come months after arguments are heard.

“They did say this case was better decided by the Supreme Court than the 7th Circuit,” Pearson added, noting that the Supreme Court in previous Bill of Rights cases has extended federal interpretations to states and cities -- a step called “incorporation” in legal language.

Most of the other rights are incorporated, “so I see no reason why this won’t be incorporated,” he said.


Hal Dardick of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.