CHICAGO (AP) — In a major victory for gun rights advocates, a federal appeals court on Tuesday struck down a ban on carrying concealed weapons in Illinois — the only remaining state where carrying concealed weapons is entirely illegal — and gave lawmakers 180 days to write a law that legalizes it.
In overturning a lower court decision, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the ban was unconstitutional and suggested a law legalizing concealed carry is long overdue in a state where gun advocates had vowed to challenge the ban on every front.
"There is no suggestion that some unique characteristic of criminal activity in Illinois justifies the state's taking a different approach from the other 49 states," Judge Richard Posner, who wrote the court's majority opinion. "If the Illinois approach were demonstrably superior, one would expect at least one or two other states to have emulated it."
Gun rights advocates were thrilled by the decision. They have long argued that the prohibition violates the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment and what they see as Americans' right to carry guns for self-defense.
"Christmas came early for law-abiding gun owners," said state Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Democratic lawmaker from southern Illinois whose proposed legislation approving concealed carry narrowly lost in the Legislature last year. "It's a mandate."
Gov. Pat Quinn, who favors strict gun control laws, was reviewing the opinion and did not have immediate comment, according to a spokeswoman. Attorney General Lisa Madigan, whose office is responsible for defending the state's laws in court, will review the ruling before deciding whether to appeal or take other action, said spokeswoman Maura Possley.
"The court gave 180 days before its decision will be returned to the lower court to be implemented," Possley said in a statement. "That time period allows our office to review what legal steps can be taken and enables the legislature to consider whether it wants to take action."
Richard Pearson, the executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, said there is no reason why lawmakers cannot pass Phelps' bill during a weeklong legislative session in January.
"Now that the court has ruled ... we will work as soon as possible with legislators to craft a concealed carry bill for the state of Illinois," he said.
The court did order its ruling stayed to "allow the Illinois legislature to craft a new gun law that will impose reasonable limitations, consistent with the public safety and the Second Amendment as interpreted in this opinion, on the carrying of guns in public," Posner wrote.
Phelps suggested that the court, in its 2-1 ruling, may have encouraged lawmakers to pass a far less restrictive concealed carry law than the one he proposed last year that was rejected.
"I said on the floor, 'A lot of people who voted against this, one of these days you're going to wish you did, because of all the limitations and the safety precautions we put in this bill, because one of these days the court's going to rule and you're not going to like the ruling," he said. "Today's the day."
The appellate panel's majority ruling, which was replete with historical references, argued that Illinois had not made a strong case that a gun ban was vital to public safety. It also was a signal to state lawmakers and gun-ban activists that the time to argue about the Second Amendment has passed.
"We are disinclined to engage in another round of historical analysis to determine whether eighteenth-century America understood the Second Amendment to include a right to bear guns outside the home," wrote Posner. "The Supreme Court has decided that the amendment confers a right to bear arms for self-defense, which is as important outside the home as inside."
But the dissenting judge, Ann Claire Williams, raised questions that could come up in a possible appeal or when lawmakers begin to debate and craft a new law addressing the issue.
After saying that "protecting the safety of its citizens is unquestionably a significant state interest," Williams wrote, "when firearms are carried outside the home, the safety of a broader range of citizens is at issue. The risk of being injured or killed now extends to strangers, law enforcement personnel, and other private citizens who happen to be in the area."
Gun rights advocates had been threatening to make Illinois once again the center of the national gun-control debate over the issue. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court made Chicago's 28-year-old handgun ban unenforceable, ruling that Americans have the right to have guns in their homes for protection. The city responded by approving alternative methods of restricting who can have guns.
Gun control advocates did not immediately respond to the ruling. But as other states passed concealed carry laws, they had argued that Illinois' ban was important for their stance in the national debate over gun control.
The country needs "one state people can look to and see it's still doing the right thing," Mark Walsh, director of the Illinois Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said last year.
The ruling Monday stems from a lawsuit filed by a former corrections officer, Michael Moore of Champaign, a farmer, Charles Hooks of Percy in southeastern Illinois and the Bellevue, Wash.-based Second Amendment Foundation.