Assault weapons ban before U.S. Supreme Court

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The U.S. Supreme Court could announce as early as Tuesday whether it will hear a challenge to a suburban Chicago law banning firearms commonly known as assault weapons.

If the court agrees to hear the case, it would cast a shadow over similar bans in seven states. But declining to take it up would boost efforts to impose such bans elsewhere, at a time of renewed interest in gun regulation after recent mass shootings.

Gun rights advocates are challenging a 2013 law passed in Highland Park, Illinois, that bans the sale, purchase, or possession of semi-automatic weapons that can hold more than 10 rounds in a single ammunition clip or magazine. In passing the law, city officials cited the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

The ban also lists certain specific rifles, including those resembling the AR-15 and AK-47 assault-style firearms.

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Assault weapons ban before U.S. Supreme Court
ROMULUS, MI - APRIL 27: A supporter of Michigan's Open Carry law attends a rally and march April 27, 2014 in Romulus, Michigan. The march was held to attempt to demonstrate to the general public what the typical open carrier is like. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - APRIL 19: Pat Tillison joins gun rights groups who gathered at Gravelly Point across the Potomac River from the nation's capital for an 'Open Carry Rally' April 19, 2010 in Arlington, Virginia. The groups gathered in a National Park area to publicly carry weapons as a demonstration of their constitutional rights to bear arms. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - APRIL 19: Gun rights groups gather at Fort Hunt Park for an 'Open Carry Rally' April 19, 2010 in Alexandria, Virginia. The groups gathered in a National Park area to publicly carry weapons as a demonstration of their constitutional rights to bear arms. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - APRIL 19: Gun rights groups gather at Gravelly Point across the Potomac River from the nation's capital for an 'Open Carry Rally' April 19, 2010 in Arlington, Virginia. The groups gathered in a National Park area to publicly carry weapons as a demonstration of their constitutional rights to bear arms. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - APRIL 19: Gun rights groups gather at Fort Hunt Park for an 'Open Carry Rally' April 19, 2010 in Alexandria, Virginia. The groups gathered in a National Park area to publicly carry weapons as a demonstration of their constitutional rights to bear arms. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - APRIL 19: Gun rights groups gather at Gravelly Point across the Potomac River from the nation's capital for an 'Open Carry Rally' April 19, 2010 in Arlington, Virginia. The groups gathered in a National Park area to publicly carry weapons as a demonstration of their constitutional rights to bear arms. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
ROMULUS, MI - APRIL 27: A supporter of Michigan's Open Carry law attends a rally and march April 27, 2014 in Romulus, Michigan. The march was held to attempt to demonstrate to the general public what the typical open carrier is like. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
ROMULUS, MI - APRIL 27: Gloria Lincoln-Thompson of Garden City, Michigan carries her Smith & Wesson Shield 9mm pistol in her belt while participating in a rally and march supporting Michigan's Open Carry law April 27, 2014 in Romulus, Michigan. The march was held to attempt to demonstrate to the general public what the typical open carrier is like. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
ROMULUS, MI - APRIL 27: Supporters of Michigan's Open Carry law hold a rally and march April 27, 2014 in Romulus, Michigan. The march was held to attempt to demonstrate to the general public what the typical open carrier is like. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Staff photo by Derek Davis: A pro-gun demonstrator who did not want to be identified stands in a park at Back Cove in Portland during an open-carry gathering at Back Cove in Portland to publicize the right to carry unconcealed weapons. Photographed on Sunday, April 25, 2010. (Photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
A demonstrator helps hold a large "Come and Take It" banner at a rally in support of open carry gun laws at the Capitol, Monday, Jan. 26, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Activist with the organization Open Carry Tarrant County, wave a Don't Tread On Me and Texas flag, as they demonstrate at a busy road intersection, Thursday, May 29, 2014, in Haltom City, Texas. North Texas gun rights advocates are suing the city of Arlington for amending an ordinance that they claim is discriminatory and infringes upon free speech rights, in the latest sign of growing tensions among gun activists and government forces in Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Scott Smith, a supporter of open carry gun laws, wears a pistol as he prepares for a rally at the Capitol, Monday, Jan. 26, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Kory Watkins, front, coordinator for Open Carry Tarrant County carries his Romanian AK 47 over his shoulder as he and his wife Janie, rear, along with others gather for a demonstration, Thursday, May 29, 2014, in Haltom City, Texas. North Texas gun rights advocates are suing the city of Arlington for amending an ordinance that they claim is discriminatory and infringes upon free speech rights, in the latest sign of growing tensions among gun activists and government forces in Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tara Cowan of Euless, Texas, a member of Open Carry Tarrant County, poses for a portrait with a Saiga 556 rifle as she and members of the group Open Carry Tarrant County gathered for a demonstration, Thursday, May 29, 2014, in Haltom City, Texas. North Texas gun rights advocates are suing the city of Arlington for amending an ordinance that they claim is discriminatory and infringes upon free speech rights, in the latest sign of growing tensions among gun activists and government forces in Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Kory Watkins, coordinator for Open Carry Tarrant County poses for a portrait holding his Romanian AK 47, Thursday, May 29, 2014, in Haltom City, Texas. North Texas gun rights advocates are suing the city of Arlington for amending an ordinance that they claim is discriminatory and infringes upon free speech rights, in the latest sign of growing tensions among gun activists and government forces in Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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Semi-automatic weapons are capable of shooting a single round with each pull of the trigger and, consequently, can fire rapidly. Large capacity magazines reduce the need to reload as often.

A federal district judge upheld the law, and so did a federal appeals court panel by a 2-1 vote.

Central to the dispute is the Supreme Court's 2008 ruling that, for the first time, said the Constitution's Second Amendment provides an individual right to own a handgun for self-defense.

While it was a watershed ruling for gun rights, it also said "dangerous and unusual weapons" can be restricted.

The firearms banned by the Highland Park ordinance may be common, the appeals court said. But it added that "assault weapons with large-capacity magazines can fire more shots, faster, and thus can be more dangerous in the aggregate. Why else are they the weapons of choice in mass shootings?"

The opinion, written by Judge Frank Easterbrook, a Ronald Reagan appointee, said that "a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines might not prevent shootings in Highland Park (where they are already rare), but it may reduce the carnage if a mass shooting occurs."

The Illinois State Rifle Association, which is challenging the law's constitutionality, says the weapons are in no way unusual. The AR-15, the group says, is the best-selling rifle type in the nation.

Between 1990 and 2012, the group says, more than 5 million AR-type rifles were manufactured for sale in the U.S., and 3.4 million more were imported. As for the magazines, the gun rights group says they are "ubiquitous," with nearly 75 million of them in possession of gun owners.

In a friend of court brief urging the Supreme Court to take the case, lawyers for 24 states say the weapons banned by the Highland Park ordinance are not only commonly used, but are also protected by state laws that forbid local communities to restrict them.

A ruling striking down the city ordinance would undercut similar bans in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, and in Chicago and surrounding cities.

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