A federal judge on Monday stripped away a key element of Chicago's gun ordinance, ruling that it is unconstitutional to prohibit licensed gun stores from operating in the city.
U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang found that the city failed to convince him that banning the sale of guns by licensed dealers was necessary to reduce gun violence.
The ruling also would make it legal for individuals to transfer ownership of a firearm as a gift or through a private sale as long as the recipient was at least 18 and had a firearm owner's identification card.
Chicago, the last city to allow residents to have handguns in their homes, once had one of the strongest handgun crackdowns in the country, making it a primary target of the National Rifle Association.
Overturning the ban on retail gun stores and private gun sales was the last major hurdle gun rights groups faced in their hard-fought battle to dismantle Chicago's tough firearm prohibitions.
The latest court ruling in the long legal fight came one day after Illinois, the last state to approve a concealed carry law, began accepting applications from residents who want to carry concealed firearms in public.
But gun shops won't likely be showing up in Chicago any time soon, since Chang delayed his ruling from taking effect to allow the city time to appeal.
Roderick Drew, a spokesman for the city's Law Department, said in a written statement Monday that Mayor Rahm Emanuel “strongly disagrees” with the judge's decision and has instructed city attorneys “to consider all options to better regulate the sale of firearms within the city's borders.”
“Every year Chicago police recover more illegal guns than officers in any city in the country, a factor of lax federal laws as well as lax laws in Illinois and surrounding states related to straw purchasing and the transfer of guns,” the city's statement said. “We need stronger gun safety laws, not increased access to firearms within the city.”
Since the U.S. Supreme Court forced the city to rewrite its firearms ordinance in June 2010, the city has faced a series of legal blows from the lower courts.
Gun rights advocates said they feared the city would stall the process, using zoning and other regulatory measures to make it difficult for businesses and individuals who want to open a store. After the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Chicago's ban on gun ranges in 2012, the city rewrote the law but added restrictions that made it difficult to find a location in the city to open a range, gun advocates said. That case still has not been resolved.
Todd Vandermyde, Illinois lobbyist for the NRA, said Chang rejected all of the city's arguments in his 35-page decision.
“The city is going to have to allow retail gun shops to operate and they are going to have to allow individuals to transfer firearms in normal transactions,” Vandermyde said. “So the question now is: How much more money does Rahm (Emanuel) want to spend fighting it?”
Mark Walsh, campaign director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, said the financially powerful NRA has systematically fought to water down gun laws in Illinois and across the country.
“That's the NRA's game plan. They keep filing suits and filing suits to chip away laws and get to their ultimate goal of a complete armed citizenry,” he said.
Though the 7th Circuit Court has ruled favorably for the NRA in recent cases in Chicago and Illinois, Walsh said other federal appellate courts have not followed suit.
“All too often the narrative is that the NRA is this monolithic machine that is winning everywhere, but that really isn't the case,” he said. “There has been the fear mongering by the NRA and gun manufacturers, but it does not necessarily translate.
“What we have seen is people, not just in Illinois but across the country, are successfully passing laws aimed to keep gun violence down.”
Chang found that the city's “blanket ban” on sales and transfers of firearms violated the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
He acknowledged that Chicago has a serious problem with gun violence but said the city had not demonstrated how allowing the sale of firearms would pose a “genuine and serious risk” to public safety.
“Chicago's ordinance goes too far in outright banning legal buyers and legal dealers from engaging in lawful acquisitions and lawful sales of firearms, and at the same time the evidence does not support that the complete ban sufficiently furthers the purposes the ordinance tries to serve,” Chang wrote.
The city argued that banning guns shops deterred criminals from getting weapons, in part because gang members were less likely to travel to suburban stores. The city also said gun stores are frequent targets for burglars and accused the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives of poor oversight when it comes to firearms dealers.
But Chang rejected those arguments, citing statistics that showed criminals rarely buy their weapons from legitimate dealers. The judge also said regulation and licensing could alleviate most of the city's concerns without keeping guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens.
“The stark reality facing the city each year is thousands of shooting victims and hundreds of murders committed with a gun,” Chang said. “But on the other side of this case is another feature of government: Certain fundamental rights are protected by the Constitution, put outside government's reach, including the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense under the Second Amendment.”
The ruling stems from a 2010 lawsuit filed by three residents and an association of Illinois firearms dealers. In addition to challenging the ban on gun sales, the suit alleged the city improperly allowed residents to have guns inside their houses but not in their garages, back porches or outside steps. The suit also challenged the city's restrictions on the number of firearms a person could legally have in a home.
Last year, the city amended its laws on carrying firearms in public and on the number of guns allowed in a home, and those aspects of the lawsuit were dropped.
Eugene Kontorovich, a constitutional law professor at Northwestern University, said the judge recognized in his ruling that if you have a constitutional right to own a gun, you also have an inherent right to be able to obtain one. The city's blanket ban on gun sales violated that principle, he said.
“This is part of a broader package strategy to slow-walk gun rights,” Kontorovich said Monday. “It's been a shotgun approach. …They could have been a lot smarter and said we will allow gun sales but we're just going to regulate the heck out of it.”
Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, said the ruling sends a clear message to the city.
“You would think they would get the message, but they don't,” he said. “Law-abiding citizens have the right to own firearms if they use them legally.”Copyright © 2015, RedEye