A Cook County judge has ruled the county’s guns and ammunition tax doesn’t violate the Constitution or the rights of firearm owners, saying the tax is little more than an “inconsequential burden” on gun owners.
In 2015, Guns Save Life Inc., a firearms owners rights lobby group, led a challenge to Cook County’s Firearm Tax Ordinance and one of its amendments. Under the policy, the county collects a $25 tax on every firearm sold in the county and a penny or nickel per ammunition cartridge. The plaintiffs said the taxes violate their Second and 14th amendment rights, as well as the Illinois Constitution.
The county asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit. After Cook County Circuit Judge David B. Atkins partially granted that motion, both parties moved for summary judgment. In an opinion issued Aug. 17, Atkins ruled in favor of the county.
Atkins explained the Supreme Court of Illinois’ instructions for heightened scrutiny applied to laws that might infringe on Second Amendment rights to bear arms. He also said the plaintiffs’ facial challenge to the ordinance means they “must establish that there is no set of circumstances that exist under which it would be valid,” yet they “failed to show that the tax is more than an inconsequential burden.”
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle
While taxes obviously add costs to goods and services, “courts have consistently understood that such additional costs by themselves do not render a tax unconstitutional,” Judge Atkins said. He said he did not believe the plaintiffs offered any evidence the taxes would prevent people from buying or owning weapons, or that it “affects the ability of law-abiding citizens to retain sufficient means of self defense,” which means it doesn’t violate Second Amendment rights or similar protections in Article I, Section 22 of the Illinois Constitution.
Atkins further explored the potential argument the tax creates a burden — “which it does not,” he wrote — and countered by noting the substantial connection “to the important government interest of public safety. …”
“The use of guns creates significant expenditures of public safety resources,” he wrote. “The tax addresses some of those costs, and provides funds to implement specific policies and programs designed to combat violence.”
He said the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1981 decision in Commonwealth Edison v. Montana, found no constitutional requirement for general revenue taxes to be “reasonably related to the value of the services provided to the activity.” He said the county’s weapons and ammunition tax is not a service fee and noted “defraying the societal costs of guns in Cook County is significant, substantial and an important government objective.”
Atkins also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument the Firearm Owners Identification Act and the Firearm Concealed Carry Act preempt the tax because in both measures references to “taxes are conspicuously absent.” He also said the legislative history of the FCCA “further suggests the statute was not intended to preempt taxation.”
Finally, Atkins said the tax’s classifications are valid under Illinois’ Uniformity Clause, as centerfire and rimfire ammunition “are clearly defined and differentiated, supporting taxing them at different rates, arguably based on the amount of damage each is capable of inflicting.” As such, the plaintiffs failed to show how the different tax rates are illegal.
Atkins said his order is final and appealable.
Guns Save Life Inc. has been represented in the action by attorneys with the firms of Stone & Johnson, of Chicago, and Cooper & Kirk, of Washington, D.C.
The county is defended by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.
In a prepared statement issued following the ruling, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she applauded the decision which, she said, “upholds our position that the taxes are proper exercise of the County’s Home Rule powers and do not in any meaningful way impede an individual’s ability to exercise their 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.
“I am grateful that the Court’s ruling sustains the authority granted to home rule units of government,” she added.