There are certain constants to life in Illinois. Abraham Lincoln has always been revered. The Cubs always find a way to lose. Lake Michigan never goes dry. Letting citizens carrying concealed firearms is out of the question.
But one of those is no longer true. Tuesday, a federal appeals court said the state cannot maintain its flat ban on concealed-carry—a policy that makes it unique among the 50 states. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to have and use a gun for self-protection. Extending the logic of that decision, the appeals court said this freedom includes the right to carry a weapon outside the home.
"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 Park Tower," wrote Judge Richard Posner. "To confine the right to be armed to the home is to divorce the Second Amendment from the right of self-defense…"
This decision comes as a surprise, partly because it does not appear to be strictly in line with what the court said in the 2008 case. "Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia. "For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues."
The court also specifically accepted "laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings"—even though the need for self-defense may arise in those places. But some eminent legal scholars, like UCLA's Eugene Volokh, agree with the appeals court's view that "the Second Amendment secures a right to keep and bear arms outside the home, possibly subject to some regulation and limitation."
It's hard to overstate what a radical step this is in Illinois, with its stubbornly impervious suspicion of guns in general and handguns in particular. Sure, there are hunters and target shooters, but they have limited sway with lawmakers.
The resistance to concealed weapons makes it an outlier. So does its law requiring a state permit, known as a Firearm Owners Identification card, to buy a gun or ammunition. Chicago (along with a couple of other cities) had a complete ban on handgun ownership, which lasted until 2010, when the Supreme Court struck it down.
Elected officials are given to pronouncements that would be politically fatal in most states. When asked by a reporter a couple of years ago if Chicago's handgun ban was actually effective in reducing crime, Mayor Richard Daley brandished a rifle with a mounted bayonet and replied, "If I put this up your butt, you'll find out how effective it is."
Democratic State Sen. Donne Trotter opposed a bill legalizing concealed-carry because it would mean "creating part-time police officers who have not gone through the extensive training, who have not had the psychological evaluations, who will be getting out there who feel now that they are stronger, they are badder, they are tougher because they have this nine-shooter on their hip."
That statement should not be interpreted to mean the senator is opposed to the idea in all circumstances. Last week, Trotter was arrested for allegedly trying to board a commercial airplane with a handgun in his carry-on bag.
The appeals court ruling provoked the usual gasps and grumps from local politicians. Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office pronounced itself "disappointed." Democratic State Rep. Eddie Acevedo said parts of the city may resemble "the wild, wild West"—as though they were islands of tranquility right now.
What other states have figured out is that forbidding citizens from carrying concealed weapons does not enhance public safety, because it doesn't prevent criminals from getting or packing guns. All it does is prevent scrupulously law-abiding individuals from using such weapons to protect themselves from attack. It punishes the victims, not the villains.
The same fears expressed by anti-gun alarmists here were expressed elsewhere, only to be proved groundless. A 2004 study by the National Academy of Sciences found "no credible evidence that 'right-to-carry' laws, which allow qualified adults to carry concealed handguns, either decrease or increase violent crime."
When it comes to day-to-day life, in fact, the change will be no big deal. But for Illinois residents to finally have the freedom to make their own choices—now, that is a big deal.