In the Face of Tragedy

Chris Wilson’s fight to ban assault weapons

Published in 2024 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine

By Anne Brash on February 1, 2024

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When a gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, the leaders of Highland Park, Illinois, hoped to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening in their town.

So, the following year, the Chicago suburb decided to ban assault rifles. The sole city councilman to vote against the ban cited “the specter of hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars of litigation costs” as his reasoning when casting his vote.

Gun rights advocates soon made good on the councilman’s prediction. But Chris Wilson, partner at Chicago’s Perkins Coie, was brought in by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the city council to defend the city pro bono.

“I felt passionately that it was wrong for people to have assault weapons in towns like the suburbs outside of Chicago, and that it made sense for Highland Park to have a ban,” says Wilson, who jumped at the chance to fight for what he saw as a just and common-sense policy.

“Assault weapons are such an awful, awful weapon. The injuries are so horrific. … It’s pretty easy, once you’ve read about these weapons and what they do, to feel like it’s worth a lot of time to try to bring some sanity to the control of these weapons.”

To illustrate both the injuries assault weapons create and their prevalence in mass shootings, Wilson and his colleagues spoke with retired officers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as with experts from the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab.

Two of the three judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld Highland Park’s ban, stating that they supported the city’s efforts to protect itself against gun violence, and that law-abiding citizens would still have means of self-defense. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015, but the justices declined to hear it.

“We, as a city council, knew that this ordinance represented our values,” says Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering. “But, at the same time, we understood and recognized that there was every chance we would be challenged by the NRA, and we’re a small city with a small budget. …  When we did get sued, and when Chris stepped in, we were very relieved to have somebody of his caliber—his brilliance, his strategic approach to these cases—in our corner. In the end, we prevailed because he prevailed.”

Friedman v. City of Highland Park became a huge victory for gun safety advocates, creating a model law that other cities could adopt. “It always felt great to win the case and feel like you’ve made a difference,” says Wilson. “But it also shows the limitations of what one city can do by itself. Despite the law, we still had a horrific tragedy in Highland Park.”

On July 4, 2022, nearly 10 years after Highland Park enacted its ban, a shooter wielding a semi-automatic rifle fired into a crowd of paradegoers downtown, killing seven and injuring 48. The shooting prompted nearby Naperville to enact its own ban on the sale of assault rifles, which was quickly challenged by the National Association for Gun Rights.

The association argued that assault-rifle bans were no longer legal due to 2022’s New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, which expanded gun rights—but the federal district court in Chicago ruled in favor of the bans. In April 2023, the association once again asked SCOTUS to step in, and once again the court declined. When appellate arguments were held in the 7th Circuit that June, Wilson, with the Illinois solicitor general plus attorneys from the city of Chicago and Cook County, volunteered again to defend the ban.

For the Naperville case, he built on the strategy he developed on the Highland Park case: Because the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bruen insisted gun regulations are valid only if they are analogous to other policies throughout the nation’s past, Wilson and his colleagues turned to historians for help.

This new standard is a massive challenge for gun safety advocates, Wilson says. “According to the current Supreme Court law, you can’t simply demonstrate that this is a really good idea. You have to demonstrate that it’s a good idea people had 200 years ago, before there were things like assault weapons.”

In November 2023, the 7th Circuit ruled 2-1, rejecting an overturning of Naperville’s ban. And Wilson remains hopeful; when he first got involved, it was the Brady Center and the city standing alone against the gun lobbies in the Highland Park case. Now, that circle of advocates has expanded significantly. “Nothing ever happened when people get discouraged,” he says. “You have to keep fighting, even in the face of tragedy, when you’re trying to make change.”

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