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State Supreme Court: Assault Weapons Ban Challenge Can Go Ahead

UPDATED 04/05/12 1:27 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that a challenge to the Cook County assault weapons ban may proceed, reversing a lower court decision.

The court on Thursday ruled that lower courts were wrong to throw out the challenge. The Supreme Court says it wants the trial court to hear evidence on whether assault weapons get the same Second Amendment protections as handguns.

As WBBM Newsradio's Dave Berner reports, attorneys challenging the ban argue that the county's ordinance is too vague, and based on faulty information.


LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio's Dave Berner reports


They say it should be reconsidered because of the 2010 McDonald v. Chicago case that rendered Chicago's ban on handguns unenforceable and led to its replacement with a new ordinance.

The county ordinance bans the sale or possession of any assault weapon or large-capacity magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times explains. But Illinois Rifle Association executive director Richard Pearson told the newspaper the law currently bans the most popular hunting rifle in the country – the AR-15 – and makes no sense.

But gun control advocates say there is no reason to nullify the ban when there are many conventional handguns and long guns are still legally permitted, the Sun-Times reported. Jonathan Lowy, director of the Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told the newspaper that packing an AK-47 is not a Second Amendment constitutional right.

The county imposed the ban back in 1993. It has been upheld by trial courts and appeals courts.

A key question before the high court is whether high-capacity, fast-firing weapons should be considered ordinary guns that get full Second Amendment protection, or treated like machine guns and other special weapons that can be restricted.

In its ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court said that point remains undecided.

On the one hand, the court said, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Heller v. Washington, D.C., which overturned the handgun ban in the nation's capital in 2008, did not say the Second Amendment provides the right to possess any and every weapon under the sun. And unlike the handgun bans that were once in effect in Chicago and Washington, D.C., the Cook County assault weapons ban is not a blanket prohibition, the court said.

"The Ordinance is not an absolute ban on the possession of all rifles, shotguns, or pistols for self-defense. Nor is it a complete ban on all semiautomatic firearms," the court said. "Instead, it covers a particular subset of these weapons with particular characteristics that the County has determined make them capable of firing rapidly, delivering a large number of shots without reloading, and creating a high risk of collateral damage. The Court in Heller had no reason to consider regulation of these particular types of firearms with these particular attributes."

But it is not clear whether the Cook County ban prohibits weapons that would be classified as being "typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes," and that question needs to be sorted out, the court said.

"Without a national uniform definition of assault weapons from which to judge these weapons, it cannot be ascertained at this stage of the proceedings whether these arms with these particular attributes as defined in this Ordinance are well suited for self-defense or sport or would be outweighed completely by the collateral damage resulting from their use, making them 'dangerous and unusual' as articulated in Heller," the high court said.

The court ruled against gun rights advocates' claims that the ordinance files the due process and equal protections clauses of the Constitution, but allowed the challenge to proceed on Second Amendment grounds.

Some in the law enforcement community were not happy about the Supreme Court decision.

Tom Weitzel is the police chief in Riverside, and the president of the West Suburban Chiefs of Police Association. He called the court ruling a poor decision.

"When law enforcement, in general, is coming into contact with individuals with assault rifles, we're not going to a home and coming into contact with a law-abiding, legal gun owner," Weitzel said. "That's not what we're dealing with."

Weitzel said the argument that assault weapons are used for target practice and hunting may be fine, but that's not what police see.

"If somebody points a high-capacity rifle at you, or is possessing one across the shoulder, you know it," Weitzel said.

Make no mistake about it, Weitzel said – assault weapons are being used more and more in armed robberies and bank robberies.

(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS Radio and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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