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Cook County guns and ammo tax, struck down by Illinois Supreme Court, is back on the books for now after Thursday board vote

The Supreme Court. (Joe Sohm/Dreamstime/TNS)
November 06, 2021

Cook County commissioners voted Thursday to amend a guns and ammunition tax that was found unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court, aiming to give the measure another lifeline by designating that money for violence prevention.

In a 12-2 vote, with three commissioners absent, the county board approved the amendment, which states all revenue from the firearm and ammunition tax must go toward programs or operations geared toward gun violence prevention. The passage follows an Oct. 21 ruling from the state’s highest court that found the levy was unconstitutional.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who proposed the legislation, said she believes the tweaks will align the ordinance with the Illinois Supreme Court’s opinion that taxes impeding a fundamental right such as the Second Amendment must be used for a “substantially related” cause.

Previously, the $1.6 million annual revenue from the guns and ammunition tax was used for the county’s public safety fund, which includes the criminal justice system.

When asked by a reporter why she strove so hard to save the tax, Preckwinkle began reading off statistics on gun violence in Chicago, including the fact that shootings in 2021 are up 10% compared with this time last year.

“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,” Preckwinkle said.

In 2012, the county board passed a $25 tax on gun purchases in Cook County; it was amended in 2015 to add a 1- to 5-cent-per-cartridge tax for ammunition. A gun rights organization sued later that year in Cook County Circuit Court, and the case made its way to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The board’s two Republican commissioners, Sean Morrison and Peter Silvestri, opposed the amendment. Before the vote, Morrison read a separate opinion from Illinois Supreme Court Justice Michael Burke that said, “The majority’s analysis wrongly leaves the door open for a municipality to enact a future tax on firearms or ammunition that is more narrowly tailored to the purpose of ameliorating the cost of gun violence.”

Burke also wrote, “The only problem with that approach is that it would still violate the Illinois Constitution.”

Morrison said the revised amendment still is “glaringly in violation” of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He added he was concerned the board approved this change when the Illinois Supreme Court’s order has not been finalized.

That issue stems from the state Supreme Court sending the matter back to the circuit court to grant final judgment, which likely will not happen until Nov. 23, according to a Laura Lechowicz Felicione, legal counsel for Preckwinkle’s office. The unconstitutionality ruling won’t come into play until that happens, she said.

“Clearly, what we’re stating here is that we’re going to try and play ‘beat the clock’ on getting around a state constitution,” Morrison said. “Why we’re rushing this through given the fact that our state Supreme Court ruled against it is to me, just, I don’t understand it.”

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a Democrat and vocal gun control advocate, brushed off Morrison’s warnings. He noted that Burke was acting as a “lone justice” when he issued his opinion against future taxes with a narrower focus.

“Commissioner Morrison tries to literally read a Supreme Court decision without understanding the interaction of the constitution,” Suffredin said. “We are well within the time frame that is allowed under the law. We are acting in good faith here.”

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