Danger zone: Will more Chicago suburbs use zoning laws to block gun stores and ranges?

Danger zone: Will more Chicago suburbs use zoning laws to block gun stores and ranges?
AP Photo/David Goldman

In recent weeks suburban Chicago towns from Highland Park (site of the July 4th shooting during an Independence Day parade) to Naperville have passed resolutions or ordinances aimed at banning the sale of AR-15s along with other gun control measures. One town that won’t be following along, however, is Evanston; not because the city council are Second Amendment stalwarts (or even supporters in most cases), but because the town has already managed to block the opening of any gun store inside the city limits.

Back in 2015 Evanston adopted an ordinance prohibiting any stand-alone gun stores from operating. Instead, they must be attached to a gun range. City zoning laws, however, prohibit ranges from opening in the vast majority of the city. In fact, Evanston officials designed the laws so they would block any attempt to open up a gun range/store, at least in the short term.

The current rules were adopted in 2015 and establish just five areas where a range hypothetically could be located. Four are in industrial areas along the former Mayfair rail line in west Evanston, the fifth is the CTA rail yard at Howard Street.
At the time, City Attorney Grant Farrar said all those areas were filled with existing businesses or other approved uses, so no gun ranges could be established — unless properties went vacant.
The 2015 rules sought to bring the city code into compliance with a Supreme Court ruling broadening gun-owner rights and with state statutes preempting local control over many aspects of gun ownership.
Based on those decisions, Farrar said, completely excluding firearm ranges from all zoning districts in the city would not be legally defensible.
They couldn’t come right out and ban gun shops, but they could craft the law in such a way that it was impossible for any store to open. That doesn’t sound legally defensible to me, but I’m not aware of any court challenge to the ordinance since it’s been put in place. This seems like a statute that’s ripe for review, especially given the on-the-record hostility towards the right to keep and bear arms by the city council members who approved the ordinance in 2015.

Several Council members indicated their distaste for the ordinance, which City attorneys had previously assured them was necessary under State law. At the June 8 meeting, when the ordinance was introduced, City attorney Michelle Masoncup said, “We have to address it. …We cannot sit silent. [We are] trying to protect you [citizens] as much as possible or [gun shops] could be placed some place you do not want.”

Without specific zoning, it might be possible that a gun shop – or the sale of guns, by a big box store, for example – could be allowed in any retail area. Moreover, City Attorney Grant Farrar said at earlier meetings that a zoning provision so narrow as to eliminate the possibility of a firing range in any part of the City could be ruled unconstitutional. They have said, however, they believe Evanston’s ordinance will survive a constitutional challenge.

… Noting that there is a lot of multi-family housing in the south part of Evanston, Ald. Rainey asked if it was possible to ban firing ranges within 350 feet of the R-5 and R-6 zoning districts, for larger apartment buildings. Adding those districts to the ban, Ms. Masoncup responded, would make the City have a “complete ban,” something that could open it up to lawsuits.

“I think it’s important for people in our community to let people know the market for businesses. Our message is clear: There’s not a market for this in our community,” said Ald. Wilson.

… “I think this is making the best of a bad situation,” said Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward.

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl appeared to echo that sentiment. “I wish we could outlaw guns, but we can’t. I think we’re doing the best we can.”

Evanston actually did have a ban on handguns from 1983 until 2008, when the city council was “dragged kicking and screaming” into complying with the Supreme Court’s decision in Heller. Since then, however, the city and its elected officials have continued to do nothing but demonstrate their hostility towards the right to keep and bear arms and, by extension, all the residents who want to exercise that right.

Evanston isn’t alone. In the 14 years since Heller was handed down no gun store or range has opened for business in Washington, D.C. It’s been 12 years since McDonald struck down Chicago’s handgun ban, and the city has still managed to block any and all ranges or stores from opening its doors. If you have the right to both keep and bear arms you must also have the right to acquire them, and these ordinances are specifically designed to inhibit that right. There are a couple of cases dealing with these types of ordinances kicking around the courts, but so far we haven’t seen any major lawsuits in this vein filed since the Bruen decision was delivered earlier this summer. I’d love to see that change, and Evanston would be a good place to start. If these laws are allowed to stand we’re going to see a lot more of them, and that means it’s going to be a lot harder (and downright impossible in some cases) for millions of Americans to access their Second Amendment rights.