Friedman v. City of Highland Park, 14–3091.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtEASTERBROOK, Circuit Judge.
Citation784 F.3d 406
PartiesArie S. FRIEDMAN and Illinois State Rifle Association, Plaintiffs–Appellants, v. CITY OF HIGHLAND PARK, ILLINOIS, Defendant–Appellee.
Docket NumberNo. 14–3091.,14–3091.
Decision Date27 April 2015

James B. Vogts, Attorney, Andrew Arthur Lothson, Attorney, Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP, Chicago, IL, for PlaintiffsAppellants.

Christopher J. Murdoch, Attorney, Holland & Knight LLP, Christopher Brennan Wilson, Attorney, Perkins Coie LLP, Chicago, IL, for DefendantAppellee.

Before EASTERBROOK, MANION, and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.


EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judge.

The City of Highland Park has an ordinance (§ 136.005 of the City Code) that prohibits possession of assault weapons or large-capacity magazines (those that can accept more than ten rounds). The ordinance defines an assault weapon as any semi-automatic gun that can accept a large-capacity magazine and has one of five other features: a pistol grip without a stock (for semiautomatic pistols, the capacity to accept a magazine outside the pistol grip); a folding, telescoping, or thumbhole stock; a grip for the non-trigger hand; a barrel shroud; or a muzzle brake or compensator. Some weapons, such as AR–15s and AK–47s, are prohibited by name. Arie Friedman, who lives in Highland Park, owned a banned rifle and several large-capacity magazines before the ordinance took effect, and he wants to own these items again; likewise members of the Illinois State Rifle Association, some of whom live in Highland Park. Plaintiffs asked the district court to enjoin enforcement of the ordinance, arguing that it violates the Constitution's Second Amendment, see District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 128 S.Ct. 2783, 171 L.Ed.2d 637 (2008), applied to the states by the Fourteenth. See McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742, 130 S.Ct. 3020, 177 L.Ed.2d 894 (2010). Heller holds that a law banning the possession of handguns in the home (or making their use in the home infeasible) violates the individual right to keep and bear arms secured by the Second Amendment. But the Court added that this is not a “right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” 554 U.S. at 626, 128 S.Ct. 2783. It cautioned against interpreting the decision to cast doubt on “longstanding prohibitions”, including the “historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons' ”. Id. at 623, 627, 128 S.Ct. 2783. It observed that state militias, when called to service, often had asked members to come armed with the sort of weapons that were “in common use at the time”, id. at 624, 128 S.Ct. 2783, and it thought these kinds of weapons (which have changed over the years) are protected by the Second Amendment in private hands, while military-grade weapons (the sort that would be in a militia's armory), such as machine guns, and weapons especially attractive to criminals, such as short-barreled shotguns, are not. Id. at 624–25, 128 S.Ct. 2783.

Plaintiffs contend that there is no “historical tradition” of banning possession of semi-automatic guns and large-capacity magazines. Semi-automatic rifles have been marketed for civilian use for over a hundred years; Highland Park's ordinance was enacted in 2013. But this argument proves too much: its logic extends to bans on machine guns (which can fire more than one round with a single pull of the trigger, unlike semi-automatic weapons that chamber a new round automatically but require a new pull to fire). Heller deemed a ban on private possession of machine guns to be obviously valid. 554 U.S. at 624, 128 S.Ct. 2783. But states didn't begin to regulate private use of machine guns until 1927. See Notes to Uniform Machine Gun Act, Handbook of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and Proceedings of the Forty–Second Annual Conference 427–28 (1932). The National Firearms Act, 48 Stat. 1236, regulating machine guns at the federal level, followed in 1934.

How weapons are sorted between private and military uses has changed over time. From the perspective of 2008, when Heller was decided, laws dating to the 1920s may seem to belong to a “historical tradition” of regulation. But they were enacted more than 130 years after the states ratified the Second Amendment. Why should regulations enacted 130 years after the Second Amendment's adoption (and nearly 60 years after the Fourteenth's) have more validity than those enacted another 90 years later? Nothing in Heller suggests that a constitutional challenge to bans on private possession of machine guns brought during the 1930s, soon after their enactment, should have succeeded—that the passage of time creates an easement across the Second Amendment. See United States v. Skoien, 614 F.3d 638 (7th Cir.2010) (en banc). If Highland Park's ordinance stays on the books for a few years, that shouldn't make it either more or less open to challenge under the Second Amendment.

Plaintiffs ask us to distinguish machine guns from semiautomatic weapons on the ground that the latter are commonly owned for lawful purposes. Cf. Heller, 554 U.S. at 625, 128 S.Ct. 2783. This does not track the way Heller distinguished United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, 59 S.Ct. 816, 83 L.Ed. 1206 (1939) : The Court took from Miller the rule that the Second Amendment does not authorize private persons to possess weapons such as machine guns and sawed-off shotguns that the government would not expect (or allow) citizens to bring with them when the militia is called to service. During Prohibition the Thompson submachine gun (the “Tommy gun”) was all too common in Chicago, but that popularity didn't give it a constitutional immunity from the federal prohibition enacted in 1934. (The Tommy gun is a machine gun, as defined by 18 U.S.C. § 921(23) and 26 U.S.C. § 5845(b), and generally forbidden by 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(4), because it fires multiple rounds with a single pull of the trigger; like the Uzi it is called a “submachine gun” to indicate that it is smaller and more mobile than other machine guns. The AK–47 and AR–15 (M16) rifles in military use also are submachine guns, though civilian versions are restricted to semi-automatic fire.) Both Heller and Miller contemplated that the weapons properly in private hands for militia use might change through legal regulation as well as innovation by firearms manufacturers.

And relying on how common a weapon is at the time of litigation would be circular to boot. Machine guns aren't commonly owned for lawful purposes today because they are illegal; semi-automatic weapons with large-capacity magazines are owned more commonly because, until recently (in some jurisdictions), they have been legal. Yet it would be absurd to say that the reason why a particular weapon can be banned is that there is a statute banning it, so that it isn't commonly owned. A law's existence can't be the source of its own constitutional validity.

Highland Park contends that the ordinance must be valid because weapons with large-capacity magazines are “dangerous and unusual” as Heller used that phrase. Yet Highland Park concedes uncertainty whether the banned weapons are commonly owned; if they are (or were before it enacted the ordinance), then they are not unusual. The record shows that perhaps 9% of the nation's firearms owners have assault weapons, but what line separates “common” from “uncommon” ownership is something the Court did not say. And the record does not show whether the banned weapons are “dangerous” compared with handguns, which are responsible for the vast majority of gun violence in the United States: nearly as many people are killed annually with handguns in Chicago alone as have been killed in mass shootings (where use of a banned weapon might make a difference) nationwide in more than a decade. See Research and Development Division, 2011 Chicago Murder Analysis, Chicago Police Department 23 (2012); J. Pete Blair & Katherine W. Schweit, A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013, Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Department of Justice 9 (2014).

The large fraction of murders committed by handguns may reflect the fact that they are much more numerous than assault weapons. What should matter to the “danger” question is how deadly a single weapon of one kind is compared with a single weapon of a different kind. On that subject the record provides some evidence. We know, for example, that semi-automatic guns with large-capacity magazines enable shooters to fire bullets faster than handguns equipped with smaller magazines. We also know that assault weapons generally are chambered for small rounds (compared with a large-caliber handgun or rifle), which emerge from the barrel with less momentum and are lethal only at (relatively) short range. This suggests that they are less dangerous per bullet—but they can fire more bullets. And they are designed to spray fire rather than to be aimed carefully. That makes them simultaneously more dangerous to bystanders (and targets of aspiring mass murderers) yet more useful to elderly householders and others who are too frightened to draw a careful bead on an intruder or physically unable to do so. Where does the balance of danger lie?

The problems that would be created by treating such empirical issues as for the judiciary rather than the legislature—and the possibility that different judges might reach dramatically different conclusions about relative risks and their constitutional significance—illustrate why courts should not read Heller like a statute rather than an explanation of the Court's disposition.

The language from Heller that we have quoted is precautionary: it warns against readings that go beyond the scope of Heller 's holding that “the Second Amendment creates individual rights, one of which is keeping operable handguns at home for self-defense.” Skoien, 614 F.3d at 640.

Heller does not purport to...

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