City considers options after NRA gun ban lawsuit

Brian Rosenthal

The Evanston City Council is still discussing what to do next after being “forced kicking and screaming” to amend its handgun ban last month.

The change was made following a June 26 Supreme Court ruling, District of Columbia v. Heller, declaring a similar ban in Washington, D.C. to be in violation of the Second Amendment. The day after the landmark decision, the National Rifle Association brought a lawsuit against Evanston alleging its ban was unconstitutional.

The City Council chose to change its ban instead of fighting the potentially expensive suit, said city corporation counsel Jack Siegel, who wrote the amendment. Now, Evanston residents can have handguns in their home for the purpose of self-protection, Siegel said. Other uses and other types of guns are still prohibited.

The NRA sued Evanston because its ban was one of the most restrictive in the country, NRA spokeswoman Rachel Parsons said in July. The ban, established in 1983, prohibited all handguns within city limits. Parsons and other NRA representatives did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the city’s amendment.

The council approved the modification despite moral objections, Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd) said.

“We view guns as a real mistake,” she said. “I think everyone in Evanston would rather have the full ban in place, but the Supreme Court has told us that we can’t.”

Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd) said the council was “forced kicking and screaming” to make the change.

The measure was passed in a 7-1 vote on August 11. Ald. Elizabeth Tisdahl (7th) said she voted against the ordinance because she wanted the council to add language mandating child safety locks for all guns.

The day after the council’s vote, Siegel filed a motion to dismiss the NRA’s suit. The motion will be decided in November.

Meanwhile, city officials are contemplating other ways to deal with the situation.

“We’re not going to fight the Supreme Court,” Mayor Lorraine Morton said in an interview. “But we will do whatever we can, within the law, to restrict the use of guns on the street.”

Last Wednesday, the Plan Commission voted to amend the zoning code to prohibit gun sales anywhere in the city, even though city code already disallowed that practice.

The council is even considering reversal of the new amendment and fighting the NRA’s suit.

That option became available when law firm Schiff Hardin approached the council with an offer to represent the city for free. The offer came “within the last few weeks” and is still being discussed, Wynne said.

Evanston has a chance to defeat the suit because the Supreme Court’s decision only concerned Washington, D.C., a federal district. Cities such as Evanston operate on a different constitutional level of government, Wynne said.

Still, legal staff advised council members that the ruling would apply to them, Jean-Baptiste said.

Northwestern law professor Steve Lubet said the lawsuit could go either way.

“It has never been determined whether the Second Amendment applies to the cities and states,” Lubet said. “The one thing you would know with absolute certainty is that it would cost a lot of money.”

Schiff Hardin could take care of all the costs, but city officials said they were still pessimistic about the city’s chances in the suit, especially since there are five conservative Supreme Court justices and four liberal ones.

“We aren’t afraid of the NRA,” Wynne said. “But this is what the Supreme Court has done.”

The amendment’s impact on Evanston’s safety is unclear.

“I think putting weapons in a home as a general rule makes things less safe,” Jean-Baptiste said. “The more guns you have, the more chance they’ll be used. Studies have shown that.”

At least one handgun-related death has occurred in Evanston each year between 2004 and 2007, according to city police statistics. Police have confiscated 79 guns during that time.

However, gun rights organizations argue that guns in the home allow potential victims to protect themselves from attackers.

In Evanston, the amendment to the ban may not have an effect either way.

“I don’t know of anybody who ran out and bought a gun as a result of the Supreme Court decision,” Wynne said, adding that she thought most Evanston residents were against guns.

A manager at Lincolnwood gun store Shore Galleries, Inc., who refused to give her name, declined to say whether or not sales had gone up since the court’s ruling or Evanston’s amendment.

The chief of Evanston Police Department agreed with Wynne that the amendment probably won’t have a big impact on the city, adding it won’t change the way the police operate.

“The people who have decided to sell drugs and carry guns are still going to conduct themselves in that way,” said Richard Eddington. “And we will continue to arrest them.”