Within six months, lawful citizens in Chicago – the site of 2,364 shootings and 487 homicides so far this year – can carry concealed weapons in public for defense, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
The closely watched ruling, which said it's unconstitutional for Illinois to keep citizens from carrying legal weapons in public, struck at the last bastion of gun prohibition in America. All other states allow people to carry concealed weapons, with some states demanding that authorities "shall issue" permits if applicants meet stated requirements.
The question of whether more guns in the hands of lawful citizens increases or reduces crime continues to be hotly debated throughout the United States, highlighted by incidents like the Trayvon Martin shooting earlier this year and the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide that ended at the Kansas City Chiefs training facility on Dec. 1.
But in Chicago, where the nation's strictest gun controls have failed to quell growing numbers of gang shootings this year, at least some legislators believe the ruling will help calm some of the violence, some of which has claimed innocent bystanders.
"I think you'll see a reduction in violence because right now, the criminals know there's no one legally who can defend themselves," state Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Democrat from Harrisburg who sponsored a failed concealed-carry bill this year, told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday. "If I'm a gang member and I now know there's concealed carry, if I try to steal that person's bag, I'll be careful what I do because that person might have a gun."
Some 325,000 residents are likely to apply, Illinois authorities say. Nationally, about 8 million concealed carriers are now in the US, up from just a few hundred thousand a decade ago.
The ruling in the case came after the state argued there was no generally recognized right to privately carry arms in 1791, when the Bill of Rights was adopted.
But the Seventh Circuit ruling cut that argument down, saying the US Supreme Court had already settled in the Heller and McDonald cases that the Second Amendment does give citizens the right to defend themselves with guns, with limitations. Those key rulings came down in 2008 and 2010, respectively, with the McDonald one dealing directly with Chicago regulations.
Tuesday’s ruling deals specifically with carry issues and the use of guns in public. Judge Richard Posner referenced English common law as well as 18th-century frontier realities in finding that Illinois residents should be able to defend themselves outside as well as inside their home.
"Twenty-first century Illinois has no hostile Indians ... [but] a Chicagoan is a good deal more likely to be attacked on a sidewalk in a rough neighborhood than in his apartment on the 35th floor of the Park Tower," wrote Judge Posner in the majority opinion.
He also directly addressed the crime situation in Chicago, suggesting that the city's current levels of violence were on the court's mind. "A gun is a potential danger to more people if carried in public than just kept in the home, but the other side of this coin is that knowing that many law-abiding citizens are walking the streets armed may make criminals timid." The judge noted that in Chicago, "most murders occur outside the home."
Judge Ann Williams disagreed in a minority opinion, citing the Illinois legislature's defeat of a concealed-carry bill this year. The legislature "reasonably concluded that if people are allowed to carry guns in public, the number of guns carried in public will increase, and the risk of firearms-related injury or death in public will increase as well."
Given the ruling and the violence seething in Chicago, that theory will probably be put to the test in the coming year. According to the court, the legislature has six months to write legislation allowing concealed weapons. The state had not decided by Tuesday whether to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.