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Gun rights advocates file opening legal challenges to Illinois’ assault weapons ban

CNI_Assault Weapons
Capitol News Illinois

First lawsuits filed in state courts, more expected in federal courts

A trio of gun owners and a firearms retailer in southeastern Illinois have filed the first two lawsuits in what’s expected to be a flurry of litigation against the state’s new law banning the sale and manufacture of assault weapons in Illinois.

Democratic leaders who pushed the ban had expected legal challenges. Senate President Don Harmon, who sponsored the legislation during lawmakers’ “lame duck” session last week, even closed his arguments during floor debate with a pithy “see you in court.”

Even before Gov. JB Pritzker signed the bill into law, the Illinois State Rifle Association responded in a statement saying, “challenge accepted.”

As of Tuesday afternoon – nearly a week after Pritzker’s signature on the legislation – the group still hadn’t filed its lawsuit, but ISRA’s executive director Richard Pearson said he’d be “filing a federal lawsuit imminently.”

Meanwhile, Wood River-based attorney Thomas Maag filed suit Friday afternoon in Crawford County on behalf of three gun owners. Despite longer odds for success in a non-federal court venue, Maag on Tuesday framed his 16-page lawsuit as democratic idealism.

“State court is the court that’s closest to the people,” Maag said. “The people affected by this (law) are people in the state of Illinois. We think state court can clean up the mess created by the governor and legislature of the state of Illinois.”

The assault weapons ban, which will effectively ban Illinoisans from buying new assault-style rifles in the state, will require those who already own such firearms as of Jan. 1, 2024, to register those guns with the state police.

Illinois is the ninth state to enact some form of a ban on assault weapons, all of which have survived legal challenges so far. But gun rights advocates are counting on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year striking down New York state’s handgun-licensing law to usher in a more permissive interpretation of the Second Amendment and a new era of litigation re-examining state and local gun laws.

The lawsuits challenging Illinois’ new law draws on that updated interpretation, which the conservative majority on the court defined as a broad right for Americans to carry a handgun outside the home for self-defense. The opinion’s author, Clarence Thomas, wrote that going forward, courts should only uphold laws restricting guns “if a firearm regulation is consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition.”

Additionally, Maag’s suit claims the law’s assault weapons registration requirement is unconstitutional because that registration could be used against someone in criminal court – a form of self-incrimination protected against under the Fifth Amendment.

But the meatiest part of Maag’s suit attacks Illinois’ ban on high-capacity magazines as unworkable.

Maag provided dozens of examples of specific guns and their standard magazine capacities, illustrating how the law’s ban on magazines over 10 rounds for long guns and 15 rounds for handguns is at odds with what’s actually on the market.

The U.S. M1 Carbine, for example, which Maag characterized as “one of the most popular firearms” both in the U.S. and internationally, has had a standard 30-round capacity since 1944.

“Of firearms designed and sold for self defense, those with magazine capacities of 10 rounds or less are rare and unusual, and those pistols with 15 or fewer rounds are usually compact versions of normal firearms, or historical and obsolete” Maag wrote in his suit.

The suit also claimed the ban on high-capacity magazines is “unconstitutionally vague.”

“It is objectively impossible to determine a given ammunition capacity without knowing what ammunition will be fed into it,” Maag wrote in his suit. “As such, no objectively intelligent person can determine whether a given ammunition magazine is legal, simply be [sic] looking at it, and likely even with expert advice.”

Along with Maag’s lawsuit, unsuccessful Republican attorney general candidate Tom DeVore filed suit over the assault weapons ban in Effingham County, and on Tuesday touted a preliminary hearing in the case expected Wednesday. DeVore, who made a name for himself filing lawsuits over Pritzker’s COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021, filed suit on behalf of Effingham-based gun retailer and shooting range Accuracy Firearms LLC.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, as well as hundreds of radio and TV stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.