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How the gun lobby outsmarted itself and helped engineer its big Supreme Court defeat Monday

A young man who declined to give his name sizes up an assault style rifle during the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in May 2013 in Houston. (Steve Ueckert/AP)
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One of the rude awakenings of the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo.; Newtown, Conn., and San Bernardino, Calif., was, as the Highland Park, Ill., City Council said in 2013, that gun violence on a large scale “is not limited to urban settings, but is also, tragically, in many suburban and small town locations as well.”

But that wasn’t entirely why Highland Park was in such a rush on June 26 of that year to enact a ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines. It was “sprinting” to pass a law, as the Chicago Tribune said at the time, because the gun lobby and gun rights supporters in the state capital had forced its hand. At its urging, the Illinois legislature gave the cities and towns of the state 10 days to pass assault-weapon and other gun legislation before barring such laws entirely at the local level, a preemption strategy long backed by the National Rifle Association. It was a now-or-never situation, and Highland Park, along with other towns faced with that 10-day window, took advantage before it shut, passing the law in a rush.

And in part because of that maneuver, gun rights proponents suffered a serious setback Monday when the Supreme Court let stand Highland Park’s law and an appeals court ruling upholding it, giving a green legal light, or perhaps a yellow one, to other cities and towns to enact their own ordinances if so inclined politically.

[Supreme Court won’t review laws banning assault weapons]

While the court issued no ruling and set no precedent when it acted, the National Rifle Association had said in its own submission to the court that it was “critical” for the court to take the case and reverse the appeals court.

“In the seven years since that opinion was handed down,” the Illinois Rifle Association complained when it petitioned the court to review Highland Park’s law, “the lower courts have assiduously worked to sap” the Heller ruling “of any real meaning. They have upheld severe restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms that would be unthinkable in the context of any other constitutional right.” It was imperative, the gun rights group said, for the court to act now.

Gun rights supporters argue that the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller upholding the individual right to bear arms under the Second Amendment should be read in the most expansive fashion, barring bans on even the most lethal of automatic weapons. And they were counting on the court to stop what they see as a wave of decisions flouting Heller

Seven states — Maryland, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — have similar bans.

Yet it could be said that the gun lobby, specifically that same Illinois Rifle Association, spurred on the very law in Highland Park, Ill., that the court declined to review, the one that produced Monday’s Supreme Court action.

In light of fierce debate about smart-gun technology and the future of firearms, the Post's Michael S. Rosenwald compiled a brief list of iconic guns that have changed the world. (Video: Jason Aldag, Gillian Brockell, Davin Coburn and Kate Tobey/The Washington Post)

Here’s how it happened.

In June 2013, the Illinois legislature passed a concealed carry law, after its ban on concealed weapons permits was struck down by a federal court. 

But when it passed the bill, at the urging of the gun lobby and its supporters, it embedded a provision that no court had mandated: an anti-home-rule ban that prevented cities and towns of Illinois from enacting their own new laws outlawing assault weapons. It gave the municipalities a grace period of exactly 10 days from the signing of the bill to pass such laws, confident that none, or few, would dare — in part because, as Glenview Village Board President Jim Patterson said at the time, “it could provoke litigation in opposition that the village would then have to pay for.”

The provision preempting local legislation, while a staple of the National Rifle Association’s agenda for the states, was an affront to many of the cities and towns in Illinois. Apart from the gun issue itself, they coveted the legislative autonomy they had in many areas of law enforcement. Indeed, the anti-home-rule provision and its short grace period were red flags.

“The clock is ticking,” then-Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said, “so I encourage mayors and local officials to act now to ban assault weapons and retain local control over this important issue,” the Tribune reported. As Democratic state Rep. Scott Drury told the Chicago Sun-Times and city councils across the state, “If you don’t do anything, you lose the right to do anything.”

As then-Gov. Pat Quinn (D) pondered the measure, the legislation set off what the Chicago Tribune called a “sprint” across the suburbs of Chicago and beyond to consider gun control laws before the 10-day period expired.

Highland Park acted quickly, voting 6 to 1 to ban assault weapons in a measure patterned after one already enacted by Cook County, where Chicago is located. “We do not need Sandy Hook in Highland Park,” resident Tom VandenBerk told local leaders, the Tribune reported. “People are being slaughtered because of assault weapons, because of an unregulated industry that has taken over this country in fear.”

Melrose Park also passed an assault weapons ban. North Chicago acted on July 3. On July 4, Deerfield passed not a ban but restrictions on the storage and transportation of assault weapons. The towns of Homewood and Hazel Crest followed suit with measures that stopped short of outright bans on assault weapons but outlawed guns that hold more than a specific number of bullets. According to the Chicago Tribune, 20 towns passed assault-weapons measures of one kind or another during the rush caused by the legislative grace period.

Other towns, such as Park Ridge, Waukegan and Glenview, considered bans but rejected them.

Meanwhile, Quinn used his “amendatory” veto power to get rid of the local preemption provision but was quickly overridden by the Illinois legislature.

Still, the fight was joined. Arie Friedman, a Highland Park pediatrician, along with the Illinois State Rifle Association, sued Highland Park to block the ordinance, losing the case in the lower courts. “Heller does not purport to define the full scope of the Second Amendment,” the 7th Circuit panel said in a 2 to 1 ruling. “The Court has not told us what other entitlements the Second Amendment creates or what kinds of gun regulations legislatures may enact. Instead the Court has alerted other judges, in Heller and again in McDonald, that the Second Amendment ‘does not imperil every law regulating firearms.’”

The gun groups pushed forward in hopes of a Supreme Court victory that would stop what they considered the gutting of the Second Amendment.

In response to the suit, Highland Park specifically used “mass shootings,” as opposed to older arguments about controlling crime, to urge the court to let the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit stand.

“Highland Park,” said the city’s brief urging the court to let the 7th Circuit decision stand, “is a vibrant, suburban community with a number of locations and events susceptible to a mass shooting: four community centers, three nursing homes, and 15 schools … places in which large numbers of people frequently congregate.”

As The Post’s Robert Barnes noted, some justices may be awaiting a split among the federal appeals courts on the issue of assault weapons bans before they’ll vote to take a case up for review. Only four votes are required for the court to take up a case, and there are at least two ready and willing now.

Highland Park’s ban is “highly suspect,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Antonin Scalia, in a dissent Monday, “because it broadly prohibits common semiautomatic firearms used for lawful purposes. Roughly five million Americans own AR-style semiautomatic rifles The overwhelming majority of citizens who own and use such rifles do so for lawful purposes, including self-defense and target shooting. Under our precedents, that is all that is needed for citizens to have a right under the Second Amendment to keep such weapons.”

How serious a setback it was for the National Rifle Association remains to be seen. Its political clout is formidable. But the NRA, in its submission to the court, took the whole case very seriously.

“Left standing,” the NRA brief said of the 7th Circuit decision, “the majority’s opinion would threaten not only the sustainability of the Second Amendment, but also a vibrant Bill of Rights meant to safeguard individual rights against government overreach and public sentiment. Intervention by the Court is critical to reverse this error that ultimately led the majority to uphold a complete ban on firearms that are widely preferred because they are extremely accurate, reliable, and versatile  and among the safest on the civilian market.”