Seventh Circuit Strikes Down Zoning Regulations and Age Restriction Governing Shooting Ranges

by Holland & Knight LLP
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HIGHLIGHTS:

  • In Rhonda Ezell, et al. v. City of Chicago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit determined that zoning regulations limiting shooting ranges to only a small area of a municipality may violate the Second Amendment.
  • The court also determined that prohibiting all minors from entering a shooting range violates the Second Amendment.
  • Municipalities bear the burden of justifying regulations affecting Second Amendment rights with actual evidence that the regulations are justified.

On Jan. 18, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit struck down Chicago's zoning regulations limiting shooting ranges to only a small portion of the city, as well as the city's ban on minors entering shooting ranges, as unconstitutional violations of the Second Amendment.

Background

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Chicago's ordinance banning handgun possession by almost all private citizens, holding that the Second Amendment 1) protects the right to possess firearms, including handguns, in the home for self-defense and 2) applies to the states and local governments. McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010). In response to McDonald, the City of Chicago repealed its ban on handgun possession and adopted the Responsible Gun Owners Ordinance, which required gun owners to engage in one hour of firearms range training as a prerequisite to lawful gun ownership in the city. Yet, at the same time, the city prohibited commercial shooting ranges everywhere in the city.

In 2011, the Seventh Circuit struck down the city's complete prohibition on commercial shooting ranges, holding "the right to possess firearms for protection implies a corresponding right to acquire and maintain proficiency in their use." Ezell v. City of Chicago, 651 F. 3d 684, 704 (7th Cir. 2011) (Ezell I).

The city responded to Ezell I by adopting a complex set of regulations governing shooting ranges, some of which were struck down in Ezell v. City of Chicago, 70 F. Supp. 3d 871 (N.D. Ill. 2014) (Ezell II). Three of the city's regulations that remained at issue after Ezell II included:

  • a zoning regulation permitting shooting ranges only in the city's manufacturing districts, and only with a special use permit
  • a zoning regulation barring shooting ranges from being within 100 feet of another range or within 500 feet of residential districts, schools, places of worship, liquor retailers, libraries, hospitals and multiple other uses
  • a regulation prohibiting anyone under the age of 18 from entering a shooting range

In Ezell v. City of Chicago, 2017 WL 203542 (7th Cir. 2017) (Ezell III), the Seventh Circuit held that these three regulations also violate the Second Amendment because the city failed to present sufficient evidence justifying the regulations' infringement on the Second Amendment.

Ruling and Reasoning

The Seventh Circuit began its analysis by reaffirming its holding in Ezell I – that the right to acquire and maintain proficiency in firearm use at a shooting range is a core right protected by the Second Amendment.

The court then examined the strength of the city's justifications for each restriction on the exercise of Second Amendment rights, explaining that because the regulations affected a core right afforded by the Second Amendment, the burden was on the city to establish that there was a close fit between the regulations and the actual public benefits they serve. It noted that such justifications must be supported with actual evidence and not mere assertions.

The Zoning Regulations

As outlined above, two zoning regulations were at issue: 1) the regulation permitting shooting ranges only in the city's manufacturing districts with a special use permit and 2) the regulation barring gun ranges from being within 100 feet of another range and within 500 feet of residential districts, schools, places of worship, liquor retailers and multiple other uses.

The court rejected the city's argument that these regulations should be scrutinized separately, instead explaining that the zoning regulations should be considered together because they "work in tandem to limit where shooting ranges may locate." As such, the court looked at the "combined effect" of the zoning regulations, which left only 2.2 percent of the city's total acreage available for siting a shooting range. The court found that the regulations, as a package, "severely restrict the right of Chicagoans to train in firearm use at a range."

The city argued that both zoning restrictions were justified because they would decrease the risk of gun theft, airborne lead contamination and risk of fire. However, the court rejected these justifications for two reasons.

First, the court faulted the city for not presenting any evidentiary support demonstrating that the regulations would reduce the risks cited by the city. For example, the court rejected the city's argument that shooting ranges create a fire risk, explaining, "[t]he City presented no evidence to suggest that a properly constructed and responsibly operated commercial shooting range presents a greater risk of spontaneous combustion than other commercial uses." Second, the court found that the city's justifications were belied by the fact that the zoning regulations did not apply to noncommercial shooting ranges operated by law enforcement and private security firms, which operated safely and without issue in the areas from which the city had banned commercial shooting ranges.

Importantly, though, the court made clear that not all zoning regulations limiting the location of shooting ranges are unconstitutional. The court explained that "[a] different combination of zoning rules – say, a more permissive zoning classification and a less restrictive buffer-zone rule – may well be justified, if carefully drafted to serve actual public interests while at the same time making commercial firing ranges practicable in the City."

The Age Regulation

The court also struck down the city's prohibition on minors entering shooting ranges using the same two-step analysis.

The court first addressed whether the Second Amendment provided minors' rights. The city argued that minors do not have Second Amendment rights. In support of its claim, the city cited 19th century authority and current state laws prohibiting firearm sales to minors and the possession of firearms by minors. The court found that these laws had little relevance because at issue was not possession of firearms by minors or sales of firearms to minors, but rather the banning of minors from entering gun ranges. The court found there was no historical evidence that firearm training for minors, especially older adolescents and teens, is categorically unprotected by the Second Amendment.

The court then determined that the city failed to demonstrate that the scope of the age restriction closely fit the justifications for the restriction. The court faulted the city for relying only on generalized assertions about the developmental immaturity of children, the risk of lead poising by inhalation or ingestion and the dangers of unsupervised children left with firearms. In addition, the court found that city failed to present evidence that the age restriction was necessary to address the public interests cited by the city. The court also found that the public concerns cited by the city could be addressed with a more closely tailored age restriction that does not completely extinguish the right of older adolescents and teens to learn how to shoot in an appropriately supervised setting at a firing range.

Practical Implications

In light of the Seventh Circuit's opinion, municipalities should closely evaluate any zoning and regulatory restrictions that affect shooting ranges to ensure that their restrictions are closely tailored to withstand a constitutional challenge. In addition, municipalities should also ensure that there is actual evidence to support the need and fit for such regulations.

A copy of Ezell v. City of Chicago is available online.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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