An Effingham County judge on Friday temporarily blocked Illinois' recently enacted ban on high-powered weapons and high-capacity magazines from being enforced on more than 850 people and a handful of licensed gun dealers.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed this week by attorney Thomas DeVore, a Republican who made an unsuccessful bid for attorney general last year, that argued the ban violated the state constitution's due process and equal protection clauses.
"The Court finds the plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success in relation to the equal protection clause of the Illinois Constitution," Judge Joshua Morrison wrote in an 11-page ruling.
The ruling only applies to the more than 850 people from across Illinois named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, as well as four licensed gun dealers, including one in the southeastern Illinois city of Effingham. The judge set a hearing for Feb. 1.
DeVore told the Tribune he was pleased with Morrison's ruling and believes that the judge "like many people in the state of Illinois have had enough of this."
"If the General Assembly wants to pass a law then do it in the wide open, don't do it like thieves in the night and let everybody know what they're doing and see what they're doing and give them a chance to participate," DeVore said. "And I think that's what the judge was trying to say and I look forward to this case as it continues."
Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Democratic leaders of the state House and Senate decried the decision in statements issued immediately after Morrison's ruling, which the governor said was "not surprising" but "disappointing."
"It is the initial result we've seen in many cases brought by plaintiffs whose goal is to advance ideology over public safety. We are well aware that this is only the first step in defending this important legislation," Pritzker said.
"I remain confident that the courts will uphold the constitutionality of Illinois' law, which aligns with the eight other states with similar laws and was written in collaboration with lawmakers, advocates, and legal experts," he said.
Morrison in his ruling cited a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision from last year that struck down New York state's concealed carry law. The high court's 6-3 ruling in New York Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen found that the "plain text" of the Second Amendment protected the right of the plaintiffs in that case to carry firearms for self-defense.
Morrison said the defendants in the case - Pritzker, House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch, Senate President Don Harmon and Attorney General Kwame Raoul - "did not follow the procedural requirements necessary for this legislation to stand up to the strict scrutiny that is required when restricting rights to avoid definitional irreparable harm."
"Due to the speed with which this bill was passed, the effect to protected classes could not have been considered, nor could the legislature have studied if this was the least restrictive way to meet their goal," Morrison wrote.
In the lawsuit, DeVore focused largely on procedural issues under the state constitution, arguing that the process by which the measure was approved violated a requirement that legislation be confined to a single subject. In the final days of the their lame-duck session, lawmakers took a bill that was initially about insurance and overwrote it with the weapons ban.
While a common practice in Springfield, DeVore argues that "it's an abhorrent method of excluding the public from participating in lawmaking so they might have a meaningful opportunity to make their voices heard to representatives."
Morrison wrote that the defendants failed to comply with the equal protection clause of the state constitution because of how the legislature decided who would be exempt from the ban. Active police officers and prison wardens, for instance, are exempt from the ban under the law.
"The Court cannot find it logical that a warden of a prison (included in the exempted persons category) is necessarily better trained or more experienced in the handling of weapons than retired military personnel (not included in the exempted persons category)," Morrison wrote. "It also does not follow that a member of the National Guard would be less well trained or experienced in handling a firearm when they are not on active duty compared to when they are."
But Morrison then said this argument could be considered moot if the Bruen decision is applied because that case made it a violation of the U.S. Constitution for the defendants in the Effingham County case to try and justify who can and cannot possess those weapons.
The gun ban was spurred by the mass shooting at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park that left seven dead and dozens injured. Signed by Pritzker hours after it was passed by legislators, it immediately bans the delivery, sale, import and purchase of guns that are designated in the law as "assault weapons." Starting next year, people who possess guns covered by the ban must either register them with the state or face a misdemeanor for a first offense and a felony for subsequent offenses.
The law also immediately bans the delivery, sale or purchase of large capacity ammunition magazines of more than 10 rounds for long guns and 15 rounds for handguns. As of April 10, current owners' possession of large-capacity magazines will be allowed only on private property, at a firing range or a sport shooting competition or at a federal licensed gun dealer for repairs. Violations will be subject to a $1,000 fine.
Also, devices that increase the firing rates of a firearm, known as "switches," to turn them into semi-automatic or automatic weapons, are immediately banned and someone in possession would face a felony count for each device.
The new law also speeds up to July from January the existing requirement for universal background checks by federal firearm dealers or the Illinois State Police for private gun sales. It also modifies the state's current "red flag" law that allows relatives and police to seek a court approved firearm restraining order to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, extending the duration of the orders from six months to a year.
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