Gun rights lawsuits target Chicago

Mar 18 2012 - 4:40pm

CHICAGO -- In an unrelenting campaign to overturn restrictive handgun laws in Illinois, gun rights advocates have pummeled Chicago and the state with lawsuits that could keep them entangled in court battles for years.

At least nine separate lawsuits targeting Chicago, Cook County and Illinois are working their way through the courts, most of them backed by the National Rifle Association, which is pouring financial resources and political clout into efforts to loosen gun laws across the country.

Meanwhile, the number of registered firearms in Chicago has steadily increased to 15,757 since the city passed an ordinance two years ago allowing residents to have handguns at home. Since the law went in effect, the Chicago Police Department has issued 4,307 firearm permits.

Illinois has been one of the NRA's fiercest battlegrounds in the fight over Second Amendment rights. Though Washington, D.C., also has a concealed carry ban, Illinois is the last of the 50 states to prohibit licensed gun owners from carrying weapons in public.

Two federal lawsuits seek to overturn the ban, while efforts by mostly rural Illinois lawmakers to pass a concealed carry law have repeatedly failed in the legislature.

Michael Moore, the lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits against the state, said the ban penalizes law-abiding citizens while giving an unfair advantage to criminals.

"I don't care what laws you pass, criminals are not going to give up their guns. They will keep their guns and use them against people like me," said Moore, 62, a retired Cook County jail superintendent who now lives in Champaign. "The Legislature seems to be determined to allow them to do that."

Former Mayor Richard Daley was a strong advocate of gun control, and according to city officials, that commitment is shared by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The city spent two years and more than $460,000 unsuccessfully defending the gun ban in McDonald v. Chicago as it made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Currently, the cases are being handled by city attorneys.

"Under Mayor Emanuel's direction, the city remains fully committed to defending our current ordinance and maintaining the fullest degree of lawful gun control," said Chicago's Corporation Counsel Steve Patton. "Handguns have had a detrimental impact on the lives of countless families and affected the quality of life for residents in neighborhoods all across the city."

Although the Supreme Court forced Chicago to rewrite its ordinance in 2010, gun rights supporters argue that some provisions are unconstitutional. In federal lawsuits, they are seeking to overturn the city's ban on retail gun stores and remove restrictions such as forbidding guns in a yard or a front porch.

In response to an unfavorable ruling by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, the City Council passed a measure in July reversing its ban on firing ranges. Gun advocates, however, continued with the lawsuit, claiming that the city's guidelines for opening ranges are unreasonable.

"In the end, we'll get this to the Supreme Court and it will have the same outcome as McDonald," said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, an affiliate of the NRA. "(Governments) are more than happy to spend taxpayer money to repress rights. People have been trampled on, and we are organizing them to fight back."

Daniel Vice, senior attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said gun cases have a high threshold for making it before the Supreme Court, which has heard only two in the last 75 years.

"The gun lobby and gun criminals have filed over 400 challenges to gun laws around the country, thinking the Supreme Court rulings would be a way to strike down reasonable gun laws," Vice said. "But the courts have overwhelmingly rejected those challenges."

Still, citizens from across the state have stepped up to be the faces of the lawsuits, including five against Chicago, three involving the state of Illinois and one against Cook County. Their stories are designed to bring a human element to a long-standing political battle that hinges on citizens' right to protect themselves and the government's right to control the use of firearms.

Rhonda Ezell, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit over the gun ranges, said she signed up for a gun safety course, which is required by law to get a firearm license in Chicago, and then had to drive 40 miles to receive the firing training she needed to complete the program.

Ezell, 44, who suffers from kidney disease and is awaiting an organ transplant, said she wanted a handgun for protection after being the victim of three home burglaries. Once, she said, she was awakened as burglars were raising the window screen by her bed.

"If the city demands that you take this class, they should provide a facility for you to do it," said Ezell, who described herself as a gun rights activist. "You don't want a person to have a gun they don't know how to use. No one should have to drive 40 miles outside the city limits to comply with a city ordinance."

Alan Gura, the attorney who successfully challenged the city's gun ban, said the lawsuit addresses unreasonable noise limitations and restricting ranges to industrial areas.

"The noise regulation and the zoning requirements make it impossible to operate a range," Gura said. "It has to be 1,000 feet away from a school, a church, a playground, stores. I'm not sure there is a single piece of property that would qualify."

Patton said the city is confident that the ordinance is constitutional.

"The city amended the gun ordinance to allow reasonable, common-sense restrictions to protect public health and safety," Patton said. "They are making the argument that the restrictions are a de facto ban. I guess we just have to disagree on that. We don't think it is."

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Moore, who challenged the state ban, said that as a jail guard, he could legally carry a gun while off-duty. But since his retirement five years ago, he is helpless to defend himself.

"I spent 30 years interacting with people charged with some of the most heinous crimes in Cook County. The reason I was authorized to carry a gun when I worked there was to defend myself and my family," said Moore. "Now I can no longer do that, but the people I interacted with didn't change."

In the second lawsuit seeking to overturn the state ban, 73-year-old Mary Shephard, of Cobden, claims that she could have defended herself when she and an 83-year-old co-worker were severely beaten during a robbery at their church and left for dead in the basement.

State officials said they have no intention of retreating.

"Whenever lawsuits are filed challenging the constitutionality of state laws, we represent the state and defend the laws," said Natalie Bauer, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "We will continue to defend the state as these cases move forward."

According to Vice, of the Brady Center, studies have shown that allowing guns to be carried in public increases violent crimes and the risk of harm to the public and to the gun carrier.

"Any confrontation suddenly becomes a life or death situation," he said.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Gov. Pat Quinn, who says allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons would put law enforcement officials in harm's way, has vowed to veto any such measure.

But Valinda Rowe, spokeswoman for IllinoisCarry.com, which has held forums across the state to drum up support for concealed carry legislation, said gun advocates will continue their focus on Illinois.

"This is something that needs to be fought on three different fronts -- the judicial front, the legislative front and the electoral front," Rowe said. "If we can't work with legislators to get them to change their stance, maybe their constituents can elect someone else."

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LAWSUITS

Gun rights advocates are pursing at least nine lawsuits against Chicago, Cook County and Illinois in an attempt to loosen some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country.

Rhonda Ezell v. City of Chicago

Originally, the federal lawsuit challenged Chicago's ban on shooting ranges. In July, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed an order from a district court that had refused to overturn the ban. In response, the City Council amended its ordinance to allow gun ranges to exist under specific guidelines. Gun advocates are challenging those guidelines in U.S. District Court.

Illinois Association of Firearms Retailers v. City of Chicago

A federal lawsuit challenging the city's ban on the sale of firearms. It also addresses restrictions in the ordinance that prohibit people from having guns in their yard, garage or on their front porch and the requirement that a license holder keep only one "assembled and operable" firearm in the home. The case is pending in U.S. District Court.

Second Amendment Arms v. City of Chicago

Challenges Chicago's ban on weapons dealers and gun stores as well as the ban on firearm transfers. It also seeks to clear all convictions before the 2010 Supreme Court ruling. The case is pending in U.S. District Court.

Shawn Gowder v. City of Chicago

A federal lawsuit claiming Gowder's constitutional right to bear arms was violated when he was denied a Chicago firearm permit because of a 1995 misdemeanor conviction for possessing a firearm on a public street. The case is pending in U.S. District Court.

John Bowley v. City of Chicago

Bowley sued the city in state court after he was denied a firearm permit because of a conviction in Ohio related to the illegal transport of a firearm in a car. In February, an Illinois Circuit Court judge ruled that the prior conviction does not disqualify an individual from receiving a permit. The city is deciding whether to appeal the ruling.

Michael Moore v. Lisa Madigan, et al.

Moore, the Second Amendment Foundation and Illinois Carry sued to overturn the state ban on carrying concealed weapons in public. In January, a U.S. District Court judge granted the state's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The plaintiffs have appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Mary E. Shepard and the Illinois State Rifle Association v. Lisa Madigan, et al.

Shepard sued to overturn the state ban on carrying concealed weapons in public. That case is pending in U.S. District Court.

Illinois v. Alberto Aguilar

In a bench trial, Aguilar was found guilty of one count of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon for carrying a loaded firearm in the backyard of a friend's home. The lawsuit claims the statute under which he was convicted is unconstitutional. The trial court and the 1st District Court of Appeals affirmed the statute. Aguilar appealed the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, where it is pending.

Matthew D. Wilson v. Cook County

The federal lawsuit challenges the county assault weapon ban, claiming that of the firearms banned, only a few are fully automatic and therefore regulated under federal law. The rest, the suit contends, are semi-automatic firearms and are not assault weapons. The case is awaiting a ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court.

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