The First Dominos Fall: Morton Grove and Wilmette Handgun Bans

After the D.C. city council banned handguns in 1976, and the voters of Massachusetts overwhelmingly rejected a handgun ban initiative that same year, the next U.S. jurisdiction to enact a handgun ban was the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, in 1981. Chicago did the same in 1982, and four other Chicago suburbs, including Wilmette, later followed suit.

The Mayor of Morton Grove has announced that he will propose repeal of the handgun ban. [Note that the linked NPR story misspells the name of Second Amendment attorney Stephen Halbrook.] Wilmette, meanwhile, has suspended enforcement of its handgun ban. [HT Snowflakes in Hell.]

Both Morton Grove and Wilmette were among the cities sued on Friday by the NRA. Their decisions are sensible. While the issue of Second Amendment incorporation is still unresolved, Richard Daley's government in Chicago can spend its own funds to fight the issue all the way to the Supreme Court. If Daley wins, the suburbs can re-institute their bans. If Daley loses (an outcome that seems more likely than not if the Supreme Court takes the case), then Wilmette and Morton Grove have saved themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars of attorneys fees, since they would have to pay their own lawyers, and have to pay the plaintiffs' lawyers for bringing a successful civil rights claim.

Morton Grove was the site of perhaps the worst legal defeat for the Second Amendment in American history. The lawsuit against the ban lost 2-1 in the Seventh Circuit, and then 4-3 in the Illinois Supreme Court (notwithstanding specific legislative history from the 1966 Illinois constitutional convention that the right to arms provision would prevent handgun bans). The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in the federal case. Attorneys Stephen Halbrook and Don Kates were closely involved in the Morton Grove litigation.

In Heller, the Morton Grove cases were the strongest precedents which plainly supported the constitutionality of a complete handgun ban, even under an individual right to arms.

Ironically, Morton Grove proved very helpful to pro-Second Amendment forces in other states. The case received much national attention, and Morton Grove's ban was the key example used by NRA lobbyists to promote state preemption laws all over the country in the 1980s. These state laws eliminated or restricted many local gun controls, and always outlawed local handgun bans. The preemption laws were important in stopping the spread of local handgun prohibition. As a result, when the time came for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Heller, handgun bans remained freakish exceptions to the national norm.

It is very pleasing to see constitutional rights being re-established in the site of one of their most notorious defeats.