By Steve Schmadeke
The Illinois Supreme Court took another bite out of the state's gun laws on Thursday, ruling that a provision barring firearms near public parks is unconstitutional.
The high court's unanimous ruling builds on a series of cases it has decided since 2013, when it struck down a portion of the state's felony gun law that calls for serious penalties for anyone caught toting a loaded gun outside their home. The justices ruled that section of the state law violated the Second Amendment right to publicly carry loaded firearms. In a separate ruling two years later, justices further clawed back the law -- this time setting aside restrictions to carrying loaded guns on the streets, sidewalks and other "public ways."
Thursday's ruling doesn't address -- and therefore lets stand -- other parts of the state's gun law, which prohibits firearms within 1,000 feet (about a city block) of schools, courthouses, public transportation facilities or public housing. The justices did not rule on guns carried near those locations on technical grounds.
The ruling also did not address the state's broad bans on felons or minors carrying guns or guns carried inside sensitive locations.
Even with the 1,000-foot ban near parks -- which legislators added to existing state law in 1993 -- some of the city's most notorious gun violence has rained down on public parks.
Hadiya Pendleton was fatally shot while taking shelter from the rain at Harsh Park five years ago. Tyshawn Lee had been playing basketball in Dawes Park when he was allegedly lured into an alley and killed by gang members in 2015, prosecutors have said. And 13 people -- including a 3-year-old boy -- were shot by gunmen firing semiautomatic weapons at Cornell Square Park in 2013.
Illinois has worked hard to be a gun-control state, only to have the courts chip away at that. Indeed, Illinois was the last state in the union to pass a concealed-carry law -- and only because a federal appeals court forced the state's hand.
Thursday's decision, written by Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier, arose from the 2013 conviction of Julio Chairez, who pleaded guilty to possessing a gun within 1,000 feet of a park in west suburban Aurora. He was sentenced in Kane County Circuit Court to two years' probation.
Chairez's attorney on appeal said the law was unconstitutional because of the burden it placed on law-abiding citizens exercising their right to carry a gun.
A law-abiding person could be driving with a gun in their glove box past a park and not realize it, unfairly setting them up to violate the law, Chairez's attorney, Erin Johnson, of the state appellate defender's office, said during oral arguments last fall.
"We're saying its unconstitutional everywhere because no one in Illinois would be able to travel throughout the state without entering these zones which are not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest," she argued at the time.
Attorneys for the state argued that the 1,000-foot ban -- and others like it -- go back centuries and fall outside the protections of the Second Amendment.
Assistant Attorney General Garson Fischer emphasized law-abiding citizens could still exercise their right to bear arms.
"This is not a comprehensive ban on carrying a weapon," Assistant Attorney General Garson Fischer said. Just stay away from parks, he argued.
The justices were not persuaded.
"Innocent behavior could swiftly be transformed into culpable conduct if an individual unknowingly crosses into a firearm restriction zone," Karmeier wrote in the Supreme Court's decision. "The result could create a chilling effect on the second amendment when an otherwise law-abiding individual may inadvertently violate the 1000-foot firearm-restricted zones by just turning a street corner."
The Supreme Court also found that the state had failed to provide evidence that the ban on guns near parks kept children safe.
"Without specific data or other meaningful evidence, we see no direct correlation between the information the State provides and its assertion that a 1000-foot firearm ban around a public park protects children, as well as other vulnerable persons, from firearm violence," the justice wrote.
Spokespersons for Chicago Police, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office and the Chicago Park District did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
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