Federal appeals court upholds Illinois semiautomatic weapons ban

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday upheld Illinois' prohibition on high-power semiautomatic weapons, refusing to put a hold on the law adopted in response to the mass killing of seven people at a 2022 parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park.

A three-judge panel of the 7th District U.S. Court of Appeals voted 2-1 on the issue. The majority recognized a difference between firearms for personal use and those the state law reserves for “trained professionals,” semiautomatic weapons, including the popular AR-15.

“There is a long tradition, unchanged from the time when the Second Amendment was added to the Constitution, supporting a distinction between weapons and accessories designed for military or law-enforcement use and weapons designed for personal use,” Judge Diane Wood said in the opinion. “The legislation now before us respects and relies on that distinction.”

Ed Sullivan, a lobbyist for the Illinois State Rifle Association, said gun-rights advocates were not surprised by the decision, given the court's political makeup, though only one of the three judges was appointed by a Democratic president. Sullivan said it's likely that plaintiffs in one or more of the multiple cases consolidated in Friday's opinion would seek a U.S. Supreme Court review, where he predicted victory.

At least eight other states and the District of Columbia have some sort of prohibition on semiautomatic weapons.

The law, adopted by a lame-duck session of the Legislature in January, prohibits the possession, manufacture or sale of semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines. It takes effect Jan. 1, 2024.

Known as the Protect Illinois Communities Act, it bans dozens of specific brands or types of rifles and handguns, .50-caliber guns, attachments and rapid-firing devices. No rifle will be allowed to accommodate more than 10 rounds, with a 15-round limit for handguns.

Those who own such guns and accessories when the law was enacted have to register them, including serial numbers, with the Illinois State Police. That process began Oct. 1.

The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the law on a 4-3 decision in August.

“The Protect Illinois Communities Act is a commonsense law that will keep Illinoisans safe,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement. “Despite constant attacks by the gun lobby that puts ideology over people’s lives, here in Illinois we have stood up and said ‘no more’ to weapons of war on our streets.”

Gun-rights advocates have argued that it's illogical to define semiautomatic guns as only suitable for the military. They say there are myriad reasons a homeowner would choose to protect family and property with an AR-15 as opposed to a handgun. And such semiautomatic weapons are the choice of many gun owners for sport shooting and hunting, they say.

Further, they note protections the U.S. Supreme Court issued in its June 2022 decision in a case known as Bruen for guns in “common use.” The AR-15 is one, they say, given the millions in U.S. households today. But the court noted that the gun's popularity rocketed when the 10-year federal assault-weapon ban expired in 2004.

“Most of the AR-15s now in use were manufactured in the past two decades,” Wood wrote. “Thus, if we looked to numbers alone, the federal ban would have been constitutional before 2004 but unconstitutional thereafter.”

The House sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Bob Morgan, a Democrat from the Chicago suburb of Deerfield who attended the Highland Park 4th of July parade where the deadly shooting occurred, praised the decision and joined Pritzker in calling for congressional action.

“This law has already prevented the sales of thousands of assault weapons and high capacity magazines in Illinois, making our state safer,” Morgan said. "We must renew our calls for a nationwide ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines in order to make mass shootings a thing of the past.”