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Supreme Court denies request to block Illinois ban on semi-automatic rifles

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Washington — The Supreme Court on Wednesday left in place for now state and local laws in Illinois that ban assault-style weapons, turning down a request to block the restrictions as the nation again finds itself grappling with a slew of recent mass shootings.

The brief, unsigned order from the high court rejects an application for emergency relief sought by a gun rights group and gun store owner who argued that the Illinois law and a Naperville ordinance violated their Second Amendment rights. There were no noted dissents.

The decision comes on the heels of a six-day span of fatal shootings beginning May 1: eight people were killed when a gunman opened fire at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas; one was killed in a shooting at a medical building in Atlanta; and six people were fatally shot in Henryetta, Oklahoma. Those deadly incidents came after four were shot and killed at a birthday party at a dance studio in Dadeville, Alabama on April 15; five died in a shooting at a bank in Louisville on April 10; and six people, including three children, were fatally shot at a private Christian school in Nashville on March 27.

On Monday, three people were killed and six others were injured in a shooting in Farmington, New Mexico.

President Biden has implored Congress to pass legislation banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, but any legislative response seems unlikely, given Democrats' slim majority in the Senate and the GOP control of the House.

The state law at the center of the court fight, called the Protect Illinois Communities Act, was Illinois' answer to a mass shooting at an Independence Day on July 4, 2022, in Highland Park that left seven people dead. Passed by the state legislature in January, the measure restricts the sale and purchase of so-called assault weapons, including AR-15s and AK-47s, and "large capacity ammunition feeding devices," defined as a magazine or similar device that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition for a long gun or 15 rounds for handguns. 

Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, passed a separate ordinance in August 2022 that outlaws the sale of assault-style weapons within city limits. 

In January, a pro-Second Amendment advocacy group, gun store and its owner sued the city of Naperville and the state, arguing that the state and local bans did not comport with the Second Amendment.

A federal district court declined requests to block the measures, finding that the Naperville ordinance and state law are "consistent with the Second Amendment's text, history, and tradition." The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit denied the gun rights supporters' request to halt enforcement of the law pending appeal.

In an emergency request to the Supreme Court for an injunction pending appeal, a lawyer for the National Association for Gun Rights and gun shop owner Robert Bevis argued that the Illinois and Naperville bans are unconstitutional, and said "millions of law-abiding citizens" own AR-15s and similar rifles for lawful purposes. The semi-automatic rifles, they said, are commonly used today.

"Despite the district court's histrionics, the possession of these weapons poses no more of a public safety threat than the possession of hands and feet," the gun rights backers wrote in a filing to the high court.

The challengers to the gun restrictions said that under the Supreme Court's major Second Amendment decisions — the 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller and 2022 ruling in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen — they are allowed to keep and bear the semi-automatic firearms and large-capacity magazines targeted by the Illinois laws.

"The Second Amendment protects arms that are commonly possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, especially self-defense in the home. The arms banned by Respondents are possessed by millions of law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, including self-defense in the home," they wrote. "Under this Court's precedents, 'that is all that is needed for citizens to have a right under the Second Amendment to keep such weapons.' There cannot be the slightest question, therefore, that the challenged laws are unconstitutional."

In the Heller decision, a divided court held that the Second Amendment protects the right to possess a firearm in the home for self-defense. Then, last June, the Supreme Court's conservative majority expanded gun rights further and imposed a new standard for determining whether firearms rules are constitutional. Under that test, the government must demonstrate that gun restrictions are consistent with the nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation. 

The gun rights advocates said it is impossible for local and state officials to identify a historical analogue to a ban on assault-style weapons.

"No founding-era precedent remotely burdens Second Amendment rights as much as an absolute ban on a category of arms commonly held by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes," they argued.

But top Illinois officials urged the Supreme Court to allow the bans to take effect. In a filing with the high court, they said that the question of whether large-capacity magazines are considered "arms," as opposed to accessories, under the Second Amendment is not settled, and said the gun rights supporters failed to demonstrate that semi-automatic rifles are commonly used for self-defense. 

"By prohibiting the manufacture and sale of weapons and magazines increasingly used in the deadliest mass shootings, the Act comfortably fits within this pattern of regulation in response to new forms of violent crime perpetrated with technologically advanced weapons," they wrote. "The public safety justifications underlying the Act are nearly identical to those that prompted 18th, 19th, and 20th century legislatures to regulate categories of weapons associated with an increase in homicides attributable to specific weapons and other criminal misuse."

Since the Supreme Court's decision expanding the Second Amendment nearly one year ago, the high court has declined to wade into disputes over firearms laws passed in the wake of its ruling. In January, it allowed New York rules that imposed restrictions on carrying firearms in public and regulating commercial gun sales to remain in place.

The challenge to Illinois' ban from the National Association for Gun Rights is one of several winding their way through the federal courts. In a case brought by two gun owners, two gun shops and a trade association for the firearms industry in January, a federal district court blocked the state from enforcing the prohibition on semi-automatic rifles, finding that it likely cannot be "harmonized" with the Second Amendment.

"Whether well-intentioned, brilliant or arrogant, no state may enact a law that denies its citizens rights that the Constitution guarantees them," U.S. District Judge Stephen McGlynn wrote in an April 28 order. "Even legislation that may enjoy the support of a majority of its citizens must fail if it violates the constitutional rights of fellow citizens."

The state appealed the decision to the 7th Circuit, and a judge on the appeals court lifted the lower court's injunction on May 4, pending further action from the court. The order from the 7th Circuit allows the law to go back into effect for now. 

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