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Anti-Gun Illinois Served a Loss on Guns and Ammo Tax

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A person's hand holding a revolver in a gun shop

In layman’s terms: An Illinois appeals court ruled that a Cook County guns and ammo tax is unconstitutional.

The Illinois Appeals Court for the First District ruled in favor of the Second Amendment, unanimously overturning a lower court’s decision to dismiss a challenge against Cook County’s ordinance that taxes firearms and ammunition sales. The Appeals Court decision reversed the dismissal of the complaint and remanded the case to the circuit court for further proceedings.

In the case, known as Vandermyde v. Cook County, plaintiffs brought a complaint against a 2012, Cook County, Illinois ordinance (“Cook County Firearm and Firearm Ammunition Tax Ordinance”) that imposes a tax on the purchase of firearms and firearm ammunition, arguing it violated their Second Amendment rights.

The taxes were not insubstantial. Under the ordinance, consumers were required to pay a $25 tax on the purchase of each firearm, a $0.05 per cartridge tax on centerfire ammunition, and $0.01 per cartridge tax on rimfire ammunition.

In the 2016 challenge, (the case was previously known as Guns Save Life v. Ali) the circuit court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and granted summary judgment to the defendants. The plaintiffs then appealed. The case torturously wound its way up to the Illinois State Supreme Court which addressed the tax classification of the ordinance, which Cook County eventually rewrote, but never addressed the constitutionality of the challenge. Plaintiffs filed suit again on the unconstitutional nature of the ordinance with a new complaint.

In its ruling to dismiss the case, the trial court relied on the argument that the outcome was controlled by the State Supreme Court’s decision in the prior appeal.

The recent decision by the mostly-liberal Appeals Court was largely framed around the complexities of whether the plaintiffs could seek damages from the county, and more interestingly, the definition of the word “infringed”. To its credit, the well-reasoned decision references both the Heller and Bruen Supreme Court decisions.

To determine the nature of the lynchpin word, the Court breaks out the 1755 edition of the Dictionary of the English Language, by Samuel Johnson, and identifies that “infringe” means to to violate; to break laws or contract; to destroy; and to hinder.” And indeed, the court found that the opposed tax did hinder such constitutional conduct.

In its summary statement the Court concludes, “The taxes are imposed exclusively for revenue purposes to fund the County’s policy objectives and priorities, and the revenue is not used to cover government costs incurred while regulating the act of purchasing a firearm. Accordingly, the tax cannot be countenanced as a permissible fee that can be assessed to a person in conjunction with that person’s exercise of the Second Amendment right. Therefore, the complaint cannot be dismissed on that basis.”

Some scholars in the Second Amendment arena have hinted that this decision could be crucial to eviscerating the hefty NFA tax that far exceeds the cost of administration and is often seen as a financial deterrent to exercising Second Amendment rights.

The decision is likely to be challenged by the State.

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