With suburban Wilmette repealing its handgun ban last week, Oak Park appears headed in the opposite direction.
Last month, the Supreme Court struck down Washington D.C.’s handgun ban. In the wake of that decision, the well-funded National Rifle Association reportedly filed suit against various suburbs (including Oak Park) seeking to overturn similar bans.
Wilmette was not sued, having stopped enforcing its ban in 2004.
Oak Park had not been formally served with the NRA’s lawsuit as of Monday. However, the village has obtained a copy of it and is determining how it will react.
“It’s pretty amazing that most of this has been played out in the media and on the Internet,” said Village Manager Tom Barwin. “But we are actively working on our response.”
Two lawsuits have been filed against Chicago by both the state and national rifle associations. Village Attorney Ray Heise said Oak Park has asked to have its lawsuit heard at the same time as Chicago’s.
“We think that just makes sense,” he said. “All of our issues are contained in both City of Chicago cases.”
Multiple law firms have volunteered to take on Oak Park’s case “pro bono,” Barwin said. However, Oak Park must first understand the legal landscape and how the Supreme Court’s ruling applies to the village before it starts making decisions on those offers, Heise said. He declined to name any specific firms.
Heise hopes to bring a report to the village board in the next couple of weeks on Oak Park’s handgun ban and possible ways to react to the lawsuit. Barwin said the board will likely take some action on the issue in September. The village is preparing to defend its ordinance or a very similar version of the one currently on the books.
Village President David Pope said Oak Park has communicated with other communities in the area with handgun bans, like Evanston and Morton Grove. The applicability of the Supreme Court’s ruling to the different communities varies based on the wording of their ordinances.
Oak Park will be mindful of the potential costs associated with defending its ban, Pope said.
“Raising that question in the courts could prove to be a fairly expensive proposition, and so it’s not surprising that many smaller municipalities might shy away from taking that issue on,” he said.
“The village is investigating alternatives that could enable it to seek a ruling from the courts on the legal standing of its current ordinance, while not subjecting the taxpayers of Oak Park to the substantial potential expense that could otherwise be involved.”
Pope and the Village of Oak Park are named as defendants in the NRA’s lawsuit, according to a copy obtained by Wednesday Journal. The plaintiffs are the NRA and two village residents.
NRA members Robert Klein Engler and Dr. Gene Reisinger are listed as the two local plaintiffs. Both men declined to comment when reached by phone Monday. Phone calls to two attorneys listed on the lawsuit were not returned by press time.
Reisinger is a dentist with an office on Westgate in Oak Park. Engler is a poet, writer and photographer, according to his website.
The suit alleges that plaintiffs owning handguns are forced to travel other routes outside of Oak Park to avoid arrest, prosecution and imprisonment. The plaintiffs legally own handguns outside of Oak Park but cannot bring them into the village to use for self-protection, the suit says.
The plaintiffs wish to possess handguns to protect themselves from attack by intruders, but cannot. They’re subject to “irreparable harm” in being unable to obtain handguns to protect themselves in their homes, the suit states.
Oak Park adopted its handgun ban in April of 1984. It was upheld by a voter referendum the following year. Heise was village attorney at the time handguns were banned. He believes the law isn’t just symbolic, as Wilmette’s village president said in a published report. According to the Oak Park Police Department, five handguns were confiscated in the past two years.
“It’s certainly been more than symbolic,” Heise said. “We’ve got an active ordinance, which we enforce, independent of state criminal weapon laws, several times a year. Circumstances come up. It’s a viable ordinance and has been used regularly.”