Supreme Court Won’t Block Illinois Laws on High-Powered Rifles

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to block two Illinois laws prohibiting the sale of high-powered guns and high-capacity magazines while challenges to them move forward.

The court’s brief order gave no reasons, which is typical when the court acts on requests for emergency relief. There were no noted dissents.

Several other states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Washington, along with many municipalities, have enacted similar laws in the wake of mass shootings around the nation. Recent shootings, including one at a Texas mall that left eight people dead, have prompted calls for further efforts to address gun violence.

The case that reached the Supreme Court was a challenge to a city ordinance in Naperville, Ill., enacted in August and a state law enacted in January. The ordinance prohibited “the commercial sale of assault rifles,” listing 26 categories of weapons, including AK-47 and AR-15 rifles. The state law covered similar weapons along with high-capacity magazines.

The National Association for Gun Rights, along with Robert Bevis, who owns a firearms store in Naperville, sued to challenge the laws, saying they violated the Second Amendment.

In February, Judge Virginia M. Kendall, of the Federal District Court in Chicago, denied the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, saying that the laws were “consistent with the Second Amendment’s text, history and tradition.”

Judge Kendall, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, acknowledged that the Supreme Court, in striking down a New York law last year that had placed strict limits on gun ownership, had announced a new legal standard for evaluating the constitutionality of gun control laws.

She quoted the key passage from Justice Clarence Thomas’s majority opinion in the case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen: “When the Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct. The government must then justify its regulation by demonstrating that it is consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

After a survey of the historical record, Judge Kendall wrote that “assault weapons pose an exceptional danger, more so than standard self-defense weapons such as handguns” and “are used disproportionately in mass shootings, police killings and gang activity.”

Judge Kendall concluded that “the text of the Second Amendment is limited to only certain arms, and history and tradition demonstrate that particularly ‘dangerous’ weapons are unprotected.”

The federal appeals court in Chicago refused to block the laws while an appeal of Judge Kendall’s ruling moves forward.

In asking the Supreme Court to intervene, the plaintiffs said that “this is an exceedingly simple case.”

“The Second Amendment,” they wrote, “protects arms that are commonly possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, especially self-defense in the home.”

The brief cited a 2015 dissent from Justice Thomas, who said the Supreme Court should not have turned down a petition in a case concerning a ban similar to the one in the new case.

“Roughly five million Americans own AR-style semiautomatic rifles,” Justice Thomas wrote at the time, referring, he said, to “modern sporting rifles.”

“The overwhelming majority of citizens who own and use such rifles do so for lawful purposes, including self-defense and target shooting,” Justice Thomas wrote. “Under our precedents, that is all that is needed for citizens to have a right under the Second Amendment to keep such weapons.”

The plaintiffs urged the justices to act quickly, saying that the laws “are literally destroying Mr. Bevis’s livelihood” by banning 85 percent of the firearms his store sells.

In response, lawyers for Naperville wrote that the prohibited firearms pose exceptional dangers, saying that “criminals who engage in mass shootings overwhelmingly use assault weapons — not other firearms.”

In their own brief, state officials told the justices that the features of the prohibited firearms “render them uniquely suitable as weapons of war but not commonly used or suitable for personal self-defense.”

The historical evidence, the brief said, supported the state law.

“During the founding era, Americans typically owned muskets for militia service and fowling pieces to hunt birds and control vermin,” the brief said. “Single-shot, muzzle-loading firearms remained the standard weapon up to and including the Civil War.”

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