Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The decision regarding a Chicago suburb suggests “that the justices are not eager to strike these laws down,” says one legal expert.
The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to review a lower court decision upholding a 2013 assault weapon ban enacted in Chicago’s Highland Park suburb. The decision comes in the wake of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, the latest of many in which assault weapons were used.
The Highland Park ordinance followed the passage of a controversial Illinois state law that allowed gun owners to legally carry concealed weapons. It forbade the suburb’s residents from possessing assault weapons with large capacity magazines, such as AK-47s or AR-15s. Violators of the ordinance would face up to six months in jail and $1,000 in fines.
Highland Park Councilman David Naftzger was the only one in the six-member council who didn’t vote for the local bill, citing among other reasons its legality, given the 2008 and 2010 Supreme Court decisions protecting the right to gun ownership under the Second Amendment. Here’s what he said then, via The Chicago Tribune:
"There's no question in my mind about the specter of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars of litigation costs" that the ordinance could generate, Naftzger said, echoing the comments of several firearms supporters who threatened legal action against the city. "Those costs will necessarily have consequences for our city's spending on public safety measures and other city priorities."
Indeed, the ordinance was challenged by a Highland Park resident and the state National Rifle Association in local courts, but was ultimately upheld. Here’s an excerpt from the majority opinion of Judge Frank H. Easterbrook of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh District in Chicago, in the April 2015 ruling:
But assault weapons with large‐capacity magazines can fire more shots, faster, and thus can be more dangerous in aggregate. Why else are they the weapons of choice in mass shootings? A ban on assault weapons and large‐capacity magazines might not prevent shootings in Highland Park (where they are already rare), but it may reduce the carnage if a mass shooting occurs.
Today’s Supreme Court decision establishes no legal precent in favor of such bans, Adam Winkler, UCLA constitutional law professor and Second Amendment expert, tells CityLab via email. But by leaving the lower-court ruling intact, it may nudge other states and local governments to enact similar laws, Winkler says:
Some lawmakers have been hesitant to enact such bans in fear the law will be overturned by the courts. Although today's decision by the Supreme Court establishes no legally binding precedent—technically, they decided not to decide the issue—it does signal that the justices are not eager to strike these laws down. The justices may have been unwilling to declare assault weapons, which are often used in mass shootings, constitutionally protected.