Gun advocates in states that still have assault weapons bans have been wondering when some brave soul will sue to overturn those laws. Under the landmark DC vs. Heller case, the Second Amendment was interpreted as protecting an individual right to keep and bear arms in common use, subject to reasonable restrictions. Now, solo practitioner Victor Quilici and a small but dedicated legal team have a good test case in Illinois. The Illinois Supreme Court just ruled earlier this month that Wilson v. Cook County will go to trial.
Theoretically, the case is simple. There are three plaintiffs suing the state of Illinois. Matthew D. Wilson, Troy Edhlund, and Joseph Messineo are three guys you’ve probably never heard of. Take note of their names. They are the ones with the guts to take on the entrenched political machine that is the Illinois court system. Their case is simple in theory. They argue that the Cook County assault weapons ban violates the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. The Cook County Commissioners originally enacted the ban in 1993 after a Finding of Public Health and Welfare Concern, and amended it in 2006 after the expiration of the federal assault weapons ban. Among other things, it bans 60 firearms by name, bans magazines holding over 10 rounds, and bans assault ammunition, whatever that is. It also imposes a characteristic-based test for whether a firearm is legal or not based on whether the gun has certain cosmetic features such as folding stocks and flash hiders. The three plaintiffs are all law-abiding gun owners with valid Illinois FOID cards and clean criminal records, suing for the future ability to own firearms that now violate the Cook county ordinance. They are not bad guys caught with illegal guns trying to use the Second Amendment to stay out of jail.
The lower courts threw out the Wilson case before it even got to trial. They wrote that because there were other rulings in other states upholding similar bans, there was no way that the plaintiffs’ argument could win in Cook County either. They didn’t want the case to see a full hearing on the record. The Wilson legal team argued that these rulings really meant, “We can violate your rights as long as other places violate them the same way,” and they refused to give up. They argued all the way up the legal food chain to the Illinois Supreme Court. Once there, another legal case based on Heller helped them out. In 2010, that same Illinois Supreme Court had ruled that the Second Amendment rights as decided in Heller extended to all the states. The McDonald v. Chicago ruling overturned Chicago’s longstanding handgun ban. Arguments for the Wilson case stood on the shoulders of Heller and McDonald. On April 6, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that Wilson v. Cook County should go back to the beginning and be granted a full and fair trial in front of the original circuit court.
Going forward with Wilson carries a great deal of risk. It’s like a championship boxing match with 12 rounds, and our side just finished real strong as the bell rang to end round three. The venue could not possibly be more hostile. The trial will occur in front of the same court that already threw out the case once before, saying it stood no chance to win. Expect a loss at the circuit court level, and another loss in the appeals courts, before the main event finishes in front of the Illinois Supreme Court one more time. Someone is going to get knocked clean out of the ring when the final ruling is made, and it could be us. A well-reasoned ruling that assault weapons bans are “reasonable restrictions” under Heller would create a powerful precedent. Anti-gun lawyers and courts would use that precedent to justify a wide variety of gun control measures, possibly for years to come. A Wilson loss at the Illinois Supreme Court level could even undermine the weight of the Heller and McDonald decisions.
The Wilson plaintiffs and their hard-working attorneys believe that the potential rewards of a win outweigh the risks of a loss. A final ruling overturning the Illinois assault weapons ban as unconstitutional under the Second Amendment would have a cascading effect on other ban states. Lawyers in California, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and other states would attack those states’ gun control schemes using Wilson as their platform. Potentially, a domino effect could occur in the coming years as assault weapons bans around the country fall one by one to 2nd Amendment attacks piling up on top of each other.
As Second Amendment advocates, we should all be interested in the progress of Wilson v. Cook County as it goes to trial and then through the appeals system. Citizens living in states with restrictive bans on firearms based on ammo capacity and cosmetic features should be especially interested. What happens to Illinois after Wilson is likely to happen in their state next–either way.