The Illinois Supreme Court this year will decide whether a Cook County tax on firearms and ammunition is unconstitutional on grounds taxes can’t be levied on items that allow people to exercise their “fundamental” rights.
The state’s high court last week heard arguments on a case where Cook County has twice been victorious in lower courts.
In 2012, the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed a $25 tax on firearms, followed a few years later by a per-cartridge tax on centerfire and rimfire ammunition.
The plaintiff in the case, “Guns Save Life”, a non-profit best known for erecting pro-gun signs on the side of highways, argues the intent of the tax was to make it more difficult for Illinoisans to purchase guns and violates their Second Amendment protections.
* The Illinois Supreme Court voted 6-0 to toss it out with Justice Anne Burke not taking part in the decision…
The uniformity clause provides that, “[i]n any law classifying the subjects or objects of non-property taxes or fees, the classes shall be reasonable and the subjects and objects within each class shall be taxed uniformly. Exemptions, deductions, credits, refunds and other allowances shall be reasonable.” Ill. Const. 1970, art. IX, § 2.
Generally, to survive scrutiny, a nonproperty tax classification must (1) be based on a real and substantial difference between the people taxed and those not taxed and (2) bear some reasonable relationship to the object of the legislation or to public policy. Arangold Corp. v. Zehnder, 204 Ill. 2d 142, 147 (2003). Before this court, plaintiffs have abandoned their argument based on differences between tax classifications for centerfire and rimfire ammunition, distinctions between in- county and out-of-county purchasers, and any distinction between retail purchasers and those exempt from the tax, including law enforcement. Instead, the inquiry is primarily focused on the second prong, whether the taxing classification at issue— a special tax on the retail purchases of firearms and firearm ammunition—bears some reasonable relationship to the object of the legislation or to public policy.
This second prong is typically a narrow inquiry. While a municipality must “produce a justification” for its classification, we normally uphold a taxing classification as long as “a set of facts ‘can be reasonably conceived that would sustain it.’ ” Empress Casino Joliet Corp. v. Giannoulias, 231 Ill. 2d 62, 73 (2008) (quoting Geja’s Cafe v. Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority, 153 Ill. 2d 239, 248 (1992)). Once the municipality produces a justification, the plaintiff then has the burden to persuade the court that the explanation is insufficient as a matter of law or unsupported by the facts. Arangold, 204 Ill. 2d at 156. […]
Relying primarily on Boynton v. Kusper, 112 Ill. 2d 356 (1986), plaintiffs assert that the ordinances may not single out the exercise of a fundamental right for special taxation to raise revenue for the general welfare. Plaintiffs further argue that the firearm tax merely funds the general revenue fund and that neither the firearm nor the ammunition tax is specifically directed at gun violence prevention measures.
We agree that the ordinances impose a burden on the exercise of a fundamental right protected by the second amendment. At its core, the second amendment protects the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms for self-defense in the home. District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 635 (2008). In McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 U.S. 742, 778 (2010), the United States Supreme Court stated that “it is clear that the Framers and ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty.” See also Johnson v. Department of State Police, 2020 IL 124213, ¶ 37 (“the second amendment right recognized in Heller is a personal liberty guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the fourteenth amendment” (citing McDonald, 561 U.S. at 791)).
While the taxes do not directly burden a law-abiding citizen’s right to use a firearm for self-defense, they do directly burden a law-abiding citizen’s right to acquire a firearm and the necessary ammunition for self-defense. See Illinois Ass’n of Firearm Retailers v. City of Chicago, 961 F. Supp. 2d 928, 938 (2014) (noting that the acquisition of firearms is a fundamental prerequisite to legal gun ownership); Jackson v. City & County of San Francisco, 746 F.3d 953, 967 (9th Cir. 2014) (the right to possess a firearm for self-defense implies a corresponding right to acquire the ammunition necessary to use them for self-defense).
This court has not yet considered the analytical framework for addressing a tax classification that bears on a fundamental right in the context of a uniformity clause challenge. Thus, we look to other contexts for guidance. In Boynton, we struck down a tax imposed upon those who applied for marriage licenses as violative of the due process clause. The statute required that $10 of the fee collected for issuing a marriage license must be directed into the Domestic Violence Shelter and Service Fund (see Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 40, ¶¶ 2403, 2403.1). Boynton, 112 Ill. 2d at 359-60. The plaintiffs challenged that portion of the license fee as an unconstitutional tax violative of due process and the uniformity clause. Id. at 360. […]
Under the plain language of the ordinances, the revenue generated from the firearm tax is not directed to any fund or program specifically related to curbing the cost of gun violence. Additionally, nothing in the ordinance indicates that the proceeds generated from the ammunition tax must be specifically directed to initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence. Thus, we hold the tax ordinances are unconstitutional under the uniformity clause.
Since our holding disposes of this case, we need not address plaintiffs’ additional challenges to the ordinances.
In a statement, a spokesman for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the county is “disappointed” in the Illinois Supreme Court’s recent decision.
“We intend to meet with our legal counsel and determine any next steps that may be warranted,” the spokesman said. “It is no secret that gun violence continues to be an epidemic in our region. … Addressing societal costs of gun violence in Cook County is substantial and an important governmental objective.
“We continue to maintain that the cost of a bullet should reflect, even if just a little bit, the cost of the violence that ultimately is not possible without the bullet. We are committed to protecting County residents from the plague of gun violence with or without this tax.”