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Rhonda Ezell, et al v. City of Chicago

July 6, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 10 cv 5135-Virginia M. Kendall, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sykes, Circuit Judge.


Before KANNE, ROVNER, and SYKES,Circuit Judges.

For nearly three decades, the City of Chicago had several ordinances in place "effectively banning handgun possession by almost all private citizens." McDonald v. City of Chicago, 130 S. Ct. 3020, 3026 (2010). In 2008 the Supreme Court struck down a similar District of Columbia law on an original-meaning interpretation of the Second Amendment.*fn1 District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 635-36 (2008). Heller held that the Amendment secures an individual right to keep and bear arms, the core component of which is the right to possess operable firearms- handguns included-for self-defense, most notably in the home. Id. at 592-95, 599, 628-29.

Soon after the Court's decision in Heller,Chicago's handgun ban was challenged. McDonald,130 S. Ct. at 3027. The foundational question in that litigation was whether the Second Amendment applies to the States and subsidiary local governments. Id. at 3026. The Supreme Court gave an affirmative answer: The Second Amendment applies to the States through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. at 3050. In the wake of McDonald, the Chicago City Council lifted the City's laws banning handgun possession and adopted the Responsible Gun Owners Ordinance in their place.

The plaintiffs here challenge the City Council's treatment of firing ranges. The Ordinance mandates one hour of range training as a prerequisite to lawful gun ownership, see CHI. MUN. CODE § 8-20-120, yet at the same time prohibits all firing ranges in the city, see id. § 8-20-080. The plaintiffs contend that the Second Amendmentprotects the right to maintain proficiency in firearm use-including the right to practice marks-manship at a range-and the City's total ban on firing ranges is unconstitutional. They add that the Ordinance severely burdens the core Second Amendment right to possess firearms for self-defense because it conditions possession on range training but simultaneously forbids range training everywhere in the city. Finally, they mount a First Amendment challenge to the Ordinance on the theory that range training is protected expression. The plaintiffs asked for a preliminary injunction, but the district court denied this request.

We reverse. The court's decision turned on several legal errors. To be fair, the standards for evaluating Second Amendment claims are just emerging, and this type of litigation is quite new. Still, the judge's decision reflects misunderstandings about the nature of the plaintiffs' harm, the structure of this kind of constitutional claim, and the proper decision method for evaluating alleged infringements of Second Amendment rights. On the present record, the plaintiffs are entitled to a prelimi-nary injunction against the firing-range ban. The harm to their Second Amendment rights cannot be remedied by damages, their challenge has a strong likelihood of success on the merits, and the City's claimed harm to the public interest is based entirely on speculation.

I. Background

A. Chicago's Responsible Gun Owners Ordinance

The day after the Supreme Court decided McDonald, the Chicago City Council's Committee on Police and Fire held a hearing to explore possible legislative responses to the decision. A Chicago alderman asked the City's legal counsel what could be done about firearms possession and other gun-related activity in the city, including shooting ranges. The City's Corporation Counsel replied that the Council could "limit what we allow to operate in our city however is reasonable as decided by the City Council."

The Committee quickly convened hearings and took testimony about the problem of gun violence in Chicago. Witnesses included academic experts on the issue of gun violence in general; community organizers and gun-control advocates; and law-enforcement officers, including Jody Weis, then the Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. Based on these hearings, the Committee made recommendations to the City Council about how it should regulate firearm possession and other firearm-related activity.

The Council immediately took up the Committee's recommendations and, just four days after McDonald was decided, repealed the City's laws banning handgun possession and unanimously adopted the Responsible Gun Owners Ordinance. See Nat'l Rifle Ass'n of Am., Inc. v. City of Chicago, Ill.,Nos. 10-3957, 10-3965 & 11-1016, 2011 WL 2150785, at *1 (7th Cir. June 2, 2011). The new Ordi-nance-a sweeping array of firearm restrictions-took effect on July 12, 2010. To give a sense of its scope: The Ordinance prohibits handgun possession outside the home, CHI. MUN. CODE § 8-20-020, and the possession of long guns outside the home or the owner's fixed place of business, id. § 8-20-030. It forbids the sale or other transfer of firearms except through inheritance or between peace officers. Id. § 8-20-100. A person may have "no more than one firearm in his home assembled and operable." Id. § 8-20-040. The Ordinance bans certain kinds of firearms, including assault weapons and "unsafe handgun[s]," as well as certain firearm accessories and types of ammunition. Id. §§ 8-20-060, 8-20-085, 8-20-170.

The Ordinance also contains an elaborate permitting regime. It prohibits the possession of any firearm without a Chicago Firearm Permit.CHI. MUN. CODE§ 8-20- 110(a). (Certain public-safety and private-security professionals are exempt.) In addition, all firearms must have a registration certificate, and to register a firearm, the owner must have a valid Permit.*fn2 Id. at§ 8-20-140(a), (b).

To apply for a Permit, a person must have an Illinois Firearm Owner's Identification Card. Id. § 8-20-110(b)(2). Only those 21 years of age or older may apply for a Permit, except that a person between the ages of 18 and 20 may apply with the written consent of a parent or legal guardian if the parent or guardian is not prohibited from having a Permit or a Firearm Owner's Identification Card. Id. § 8-20-110(b)(1). Persons convicted of certain crimes may not obtain a Permit. Id. § 8-20-110(b)(3) (disqualifying persons convicted of any violent crime, a second or subsequent drunk-driving offense, or an offense relating to the unlawful use of a firearm). Other lawsuits challenging these and other provisions of the Ordinance are currently pending in the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. See, e.g., Second Amendment Arms v. City of Chicago, No. 10 C 4257 (N.D. Ill. filed July 9, 2010); Benson v. City of Chicago, No. 10 C 4184 (N.D. Ill. filed July 6, 2010).

As relevant here, permits are conditioned upon completion of a certified firearm-safety course. Applicants must submit an affidavit signed by a state-certified firearm instructor attesting that the applicant has completed a certified firearm-safety and training course that provides at least four hours of classroom instruction *fn3 120(a)(7). At the same time, however, the Ordinance prohibits all "[s]hooting galleries, firearm ranges, or any other place where firearms are discharged." Id. § 8-20-280. The Ordinance also prohibits the "discharge [of] any firearm within the city," making no exception for controlled shooting at a firing range-because, of course, firing ranges are banned throughout the city.*fn4 Id. § 8-24-010.

Violations are punishable by a fine of $1,000 to $5,000 and incarceration for a term of "not less than 20 days nor more than 90 days," and "[e]ach day that such violation exists shall constitute a separate and distinct offense." CHI. MUN. CODE § 8-20-300(a), (b). The penalties go up for subsequent convictions. Id. § 8-20-300(b) (For "[a]ny subsequent conviction," the penalty is a fine of $5,000 to $10,000 and incarceration for a term of "not less than 30 days, nor more than six months.").

The firing-range ban does not apply to governmental agencies. Id. § 8-20-280. The federal government operates and one hour of range training. CHI. MUN. CODE § 8-20- four indoor firing ranges in Chicago, and the Chicago Police Department operates five. Apparently, the City also exempts private security companies; there are two indoor firing ranges operated by private security companies in Chicago.*fn5

B. The Litigation

The plaintiffs are three Chicago residents, Rhonda Ezell, William Hespen, and Joseph Brown; and three organizations, Action Target, Inc.; the Second Amendment Foundation, Inc.; and the Illinois State Rifle Association. Action Target designs, builds, and furnishes firing ranges throughout the United States and would like to do so in Chicago. The Second Amendment Foundation and the Illinois Rifle Association are nonprofit associations whose members are firearms enthusiasts; among other activities, these organizations advocate for Second Amendment rights and have made arrangements to try to bring a mobile firing range to Chicago.

The plaintiffs sought a temporary restraining order ("TRO"), a preliminary injunction, and a permanent injunction against the City's ban on firing ranges, and corresponding declaratory relief invalidating the ban. The district court twice denied a TRO, finding that the plaintiffs were not irreparably harmed. The parties conducted expedited discovery, and the court held a two-day hearing on the preliminary-injunction motion. The plaintiffs presented the testimony of representatives of Action Target, the Second Amendment Foundation, and the Illinois Rifle Association. Declarations from the three individual plaintiffs were already in the record, so they did not testify.

The City called two witnesses: Sergeant Daniel Bartoli, a former rangemaster for the Chicago Police Department, and Patricia Scudiero, Chicago's Zoning Commissioner. Bartoli testified that firing ranges can carry a risk of injury from unintentional discharge and raised concerns about criminals seeking to steal firearms from range users. He also explained the possible problem of contamination from lead residue left on range users' hands after shooting. He identified various measures that a firing range should take to reduce these risks. To prevent theft, he said a range should have a secure parking lot and only one entrance into its facilities. To avoid injury from unintentional discharge, a range should provide a separate location for the loading and unloading of firearms and should erect a permanent, opaque fence to deter bystanders from congregating around the facility. He also said a range should have running water onsite so users can wash lead residue from their hands after shooting.

Scudiero testified that Chicago's zoning code prohibits all property uses not expressly permitted and contains no provision for gun ranges. If firing ranges were *fn6 added as a permitted use, she said they should be classified as an "intensive use" under the Code. An "intensive use," she explained, is a use "that could pose a threat to the health, safety and welfare" of city residents and therefore may be located only in a manufacturing district; even then, intensive uses are allowed only by special-use permit, not presumptively. On cross-examination Scudiero admitted she has never been to a firing range. She acknowledged as well that the governmental firing ranges within the city are not limited to manufacturing districts; they are located near churches, schools, university buildings, residential housing, a county courthouse, retail stores, and parks. She has not received any complaints from the public about these ranges.

The City introduced evidence that there are 14 firing ranges open to the public and located within 50 miles of its borders. Of these, seven are located within 25 miles of the city, and five are located within 5 miles of the city.

Because the legal issues in the case had been fully briefed, the plaintiffs asked the court to consider the preliminary-injunction hearing as a trial on the merits. See FED. R. CIV. P. 65(a)(2) (permitting the court to "advance the trial on the merits and consolidate it with the [preliminary-injunction] hearing"). The court declined to do so and took the matter under advisement.

C. The Decision Below

Soon after the hearing, the district court issued a decision denying preliminary injunctive relief because the plaintiffs were neither irreparably harmed nor likely to succeed on the merits. The court's decision is a bit hard to follow; standing and merits inquiries are mixed in with the court's evaluation of irreparable harm. As we will explain, the court made several critical legal errors. To see how the decision got off-track requires that we identify its key holdings.

The judge began by "declin[ing] to adopt the intermediate scrutiny standard" of review, but held in the alternative that "even if" intermediate scrutiny applied, the "[p]laintiffs still fail to meet their burden of demonstrating irreparable harm." The judge said the organizational plaintiffs "do not have the necessary standing to demonstrate their irreparable harm" because "Heller and McDonald addressed an individual's right to possess a firearm" but "did not address an organization's right." Again, the court purported to enter an alternative holding: "Even if" the organizations had standing to assert a claim under Heller and McDonald, they "failed to present sufficient evidence . . . that their constituency has been unable to comply with the statute." The court held that none of the plaintiffs were suffering irreparable harm because the injury in question was limited to the minor cost and inconvenience of having to travel outside the city to obtain the range training necessary to qualify for a Permit and money damages would be sufficient to compensate the plaintiffs for this travel-related injury if they ultimately prevailed.

On the plaintiffs' likelihood of success on the merits, the judge was skeptical that the firing-range ban violated anyone's Second Amendment rights: "Suggesting that firing a weapon at a firing range is tanta-mount to possessing a weapon within one's residence for self-defense would be establishing law that has not yet been expanded to that breadth." If the Second Amendment was implicated at all, the judge characterized the claim as a minor dispute about an inconvenient permit requirement: "[T]he [c]ity's boundaries are merely artificial borders allegedly preventing an individual from obtaining a [firearm] permit . . . ." The court concluded that the City's evidence about "stray bullets," potential theft, and lead contamination was sufficient to show that "the safety of its citizens is at risk when compared to the minimal inconvenience of traveling outside of the [c]ity for a one-hour course."

Finally, the judge concluded that the balance of harms favored the City because the "potential harmful effects of firing ranges" outweighed any inconvenience the plaintiffs might experience from having to travel to ranges outside of Chicago. The court summarily rejected the plaintiffs' First Amendment claim, finding it underdeveloped. Alternatively, the court held that the range ban did not appear to implicate any expressive message.

The plaintiffs appealed. See 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(1) (authorizing immediate appeal of a decision granting or denying injunctive relief).

II. Analysis

To win a preliminary injunction, a party must show that it has (1) no adequate remedy at law and will suffer irreparable harm if a preliminary injunction is denied and (2) some likelihood of success on the merits. See Christian Legal Soc'y v. Walker,453 F.3d 853, 859 (7th Cir. 2006); Joelner v. Vill. of Wash. Park,378 F.3d 613, 619 (7th Cir. 2004); Abbott Labs. v. Mead Johnson & Co., 971 F.2d 6, 11-12 (7th Cir. 1992). If the moving party meets these threshold requirements, the district court weighs the factors against one another, assessing whether the balance of harms favors the moving party or whether the harm to the nonmoving party or the public is sufficiently weighty that the injunction should be denied. Christian Legal ...

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