A federal appeals court struck down Illinois' ban on carrying a weapon… (Scott Olson / Getty Images )
Three days before the massacre of 20 young schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., a federal appeals court struck down Illinois' ban on carrying a weapon in public. The ruling complicated the task of legislating protections against gun violence, but it was less of a victory for the gun lobby than it initially appeared.
Alone among the states, Illinois imposes a broad ban on the carrying of "ready to use" guns outside the home. (There are exceptions for police, hunters and target shooters.) The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that such an indiscriminate prohibition was inconsistent with recent Supreme Court decisions holding that the 2nd Amendment confers an individual right to keep and bear arms.
The question for the 7th Circuit was whether that right exists outside the home. Writing for the majority, Judge Richard Posner concluded that it did. He noted, "A woman who is being stalked or has obtained a protective order against a violent ex-husband is more vulnerable to being attacked while walking to or from her home than when inside."
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In her dissent, Judge Ann Claire Williams countered that the Supreme Court decisions Posner cited involved bans on possessing handguns even in the home. She also pointed out that the Supreme Court hadn't questioned the constitutionality of laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in "sensitive places such as schools and government buildings" — suggesting, she said, that "the constitutional right to carry ready-to-use firearms in public for self-defense may well not exist."
We'd like to think the Supreme Court would agree with Williams, but Posner's reading of the court's earlier decisions is probably the more accurate one. For better or worse — and we think for worse — the current Supreme Court has rejected the notion that the right to keep and bear arms exists only in the context of a "well-regulated militia." But that doesn't mean states are powerless to regulate the carrying of firearms in public.
Even it were affirmed by the Supreme Court, the 7th Circuit's decision probably wouldn't threaten most state laws that impose sensible restrictions on the carrying of firearms. (In California, applicants for a "Carry a Concealed Weapon" permit must prove that they are of "good moral character," have sufficient cause to carry a weapon and have received firearms training.)
But the issue may never reach the high court. The 7th Circuit delayed implementation of its ruling for 180 days to allow the Illinois legislature "to craft a new gun law that will impose reasonable limitations, consistent with the public safety and the 2nd Amendment as interpreted in this opinion, on the carrying of guns in public." If the state does so, the courts should hold their fire.