Chicago gun law challenged

By SpencerRoush

For nearly 30 years, the city of Chicago has applied one of the most restrictive gun laws in the United States, which few have attempted to fight. But last year, four Chicago residents decided to take on the challenge along with the Second Amendment Foundation and the Illinois State Rifle Association as co-plaintiffs.

On March 2, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case that would eliminate the handgun ban and define the Second Amendment and current gun regulations in all jurisdictions. A decision is expected in June 2010.

In 2008, a nearly identical gun ban was lifted in Washington, D.C. after Dick Heller, a security guard, sued the district. Heller v. Washington, D.C. cleared up part of the often vague meaning of the Second Amendment because the Supreme Court decided that individuals do have the right to own a gun. However, this decision only applied to federal jurisdictions.

More than one year after the Heller v. Washington, D.C. hearing, a few Chicagoans, including Otis McDonald, Adam Orlov, Colleen and David Lawson, decided it was their chance to advocate lifting the ban.

“Chicago’s handgun ban has failed to stop violent crime,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, in a statement. “It’s time to give the Constitution a chance.”

Alan Gura, who is leading the plaintiff’s case in McDonald v. Chicago, is the same lawyer who successfully argued the Heller case against Washington, D.C.

McDonald v. Chicago would determine if the Second Amendment applies to state and local governments, which may change gun laws statewide.

“What we’re going to see is a testing of state laws restricting gun ownership,” said Andrew Morriss, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law. “Now, it doesn’t mean that they’re all going to go away.  Even in the case of the First Amendment, we see that states have permitted some regulation of speech. They can regulate the time, place and manner that speech occurs.”

Morriss said Chicago has a difficult argument to make because it has to show that the Second Amendment doesn’t apply to state and local governments, unlike the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.

“The issue no longer is, ‘Does the Second Amendment protect an individual’s right to own firearms?’ which is what the issue was in Heller,” Morriss said. “Now the question is, ‘Does it protect them against the states as well as the federal government?’”

Morriss explained that the plaintiffs will have an easier case to prove, but he said the decision could go either way because a couple of the justices are unpredictable.

“This is one of the [cases] where you just don’t know,” Morriss said. “Heller was 5-4, so I would expect that there will be multiple opinions and will turn on the votes of a couple of justices who are sort of on the middle of these things. Particularly, Justice [Anthony] Kennedy is likely to be quite important.”

He said if the plaintiffs win the case, there will be years of litigation to determine what the contours of this decision mean for gun regulations on the state level.

Morriss said he could think of three or four justices that will probably be firmly on the side of the gun owners, however, “it’s very hard to predict Justice Kennedy,” who he said the decision may come down to.

“Our goal is to require state and local officials to respect our Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” Alan Gura said in a statement after filing the law suit. “Chicago’s handgun ban and some of its gun registration requirements are clearly unconstitutional.”

Matt McDermott, organizer for the United Power for Action and Justice, an anti-gun organization, said that if the petitioners win, “it would be a detriment to safety and problems with violence in the city of Chicago.”

According to Roseanne Ander, executive director at the University of Chicago Crime Lab, Chicago has a higher homicide rate than two larger cities, New York City and Los Angeles. She said that even with the gun ban, the crime rate is still higher than most cities.

According to Chicago Police Department statistics, there were 511 murders in 2008, which increased by 14.8 percent from 2007.

“People want to sort of say, ‘Chicago has a ban and it still has a high homicide rate,’ but the ban alone in the context of other communities, where it’s easy to get a gun, make it hard to think that it’s going to have the enormous effect,” Ander said.

Ander said she thinks New York City and Los Angeles have lower homicide rates because they have very restrictive gun laws and low gun ownership.

According to Ander, who co-authored a study which researched gun violence in Chicago, gun violence dropped after the ban was put in place. However, in the early ’90s, the violence started rising again, which she said was the same thing that happened in Washington, D.C. with its gun ban.

“It’s like an island of one policy surrounded by a sea of different policies,” Ander said. “These aren’t rigid borders. It’s not like you have to go through metal detectors to get into Chicago. Even if Chicago has really restrictive laws, you can go to Indiana or just a little south of Chicago and you have a whole different set of policies.”

According to the study conducted by the University of Chicago Crime Lab, gun violence costs Chicago taxpayers $2.5 billion each year.

McDermott said he believes part of the solution to the city’s high gun violence rates is to better enforce the existing laws on gun shops and uphold the current gun ban. He said if shops aren’t following regulations, they should be scrutinized.

The Second Amendment Foundation released a statement that said gun sales were up in January of 2009 nationwide,  and according to the FBI’s data, homicides decreased 10 percent during the first six months of 2009, compared to the first half of 2008.

Ander said each jurisdiction is different and should be able to make its own judgments on stricter gun control, depending on the current gun violence in that area.

Mayor Richard M. Daley said in a statement early last year, “It’s very simple. Reasonable gun laws—laws that balance the need to protect the rights of gun owners with the necessity of reducing the threat of gun violence—are the right thing for us to do.”

Daley has put many procedures in place to reduce the amount of illegal guns entering the city and supports the gun ban because gun violence claims the lives of many people each year.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to have a sweeping ban on gun ownership [to] reduce the rates of gun violence in this country,” Ander said.