New Case: Powell v. State of Illinois

A federal district court decision from September 30 raises some novel legal issues regarding firearm policy (the case is captioned Powell v. State of Illinois but is still at the pre-trial stage). On September 30, 2019, U.S. District Judge Joan Gotschall issued a breathtaking 34-page opinion denying in part the defendants’ motion to dismiss; it allows the case to move forward to discovery.  (See news coverage of the opinion here and here). The plaintiffs, representing a class of Chicago African American school children, link inexcusably high levels of gun violence with childhood learning disabilities and a lack of reasonable accommodations. The statutory basis for the claim is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), along with the Illinois Civil Rights Act; the children-class representatives suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other learning disabilities due to daily exposure to gun violence, including witnessing the shooting deaths of immediate family members. The plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief in the form of state gun regulations, primarily directed at gun dealers, “which they contend would appreciably stem the tide of gun violence in Chicago.” (For helpful reporting on the complaint from when it was filed, see here and here).  It is worth reiterating that the September 30 decision, though significant, is merely a ruling on a motion to dismiss – a trial on the merits is still in the future.  Most cases settle before trial, so this case could end in a pre-trial settlement sometime in the next few months, without generating a verdict on the merits or subsequent appellate decisions.

The case focuses on Chicago, but it highlights a pervasive problem for urban communities nationwide – regular exposure to neighborhood gun violence is a significant factor in educational inequality, because it interferes with learning, educational achievement, and school operations.  The idea behind the case is that concentration of gun violence in neighborhoods beset with poverty is the foreseeable and inevitable consequence of an overly abundant supply of easily accessible firearms. Gun violence and homicides have reached epidemic levels in recent years among minority teenagers in the United States, and the constant disruption, trauma, and fear that go along with such day-to-day violence significantly affect the educational and psychological development of urban youth, and thus their eventual educational and career achievements.  The plaintiffs’ complaint and brief draw heavily from a growing body of academic research from sociologists, psychologists, educational theorists, and public health researchers to support these points.  The plaintiffs in this case argue that comprehensive community solutions to reduce gun violence are inseparable from policies promoting educational equality, as decreased gun violence boosts educational achievement and helps the school environment.

The judge’s opinion opens with a simple, sad observation: “It is common knowledge that, as the plaintiffs in this proposed class action allege, gun violence has ravaged the City of Chicago for decades and that the violence is concentrated in predominately African-American neighborhoods.”  Other courts have acknowledged this as well.  Chicago has one of the highest rates of gun homicides in the country, and twenty percent of the homicide victims in Chicago are teenagers or younger.  The racial disparity among victims is striking: eighty percent of the murder victims in Chicago are African-American, even though African-Americans are only about one-third of Chicago’s total population; African-American men from age 15 to 34 are only 4% of the city’s population, but they comprise half of the homicide victims.  The national homicide rate is around 5 per 100,000, but the African American neighborhoods in Chicago have rates from 87-180 per 100,000, while the predominately white neighborhoods have homicides very rarely, and in some years, none. Chicago is awash in guns, a large share of which come from seven identifiable gun dealers, either through loosely-regulated but legal sales, or through thefts from these stores (hundreds of guns per year that enter the black market).

This case is interesting from a legal perspective for several reasons.  First, the plaintiffs are claiming a statutory (not constitutional) right to be free from daily gun violence, under both federal (the A.D.A.) and state law.  Second, the case does not directly implicate Second Amendment rights – the plaintiffs are not suing gun owners, dealers, or manufacturers, but instead state officials who are (allegedly) not implementing the firearm regulatory regime mandated in Illinois’ state statutes.  Of course, the injunctive relief that the plaintiffs are seeking are a combination of regulatory and enforcement actions by state law enforcement officials that would raise some Second Amendment issues.  Indeed, the very statute that the plaintiffs want implemented is currently the subject of separate litigation by gun rights groups, claiming that the Illinois FOID law violates (among other things) the Second Amendment.  So, Second Amendment advocates will watch this case closely as it moves forward; some groups, such as the NRA-ILA, have already decried the September 30 opinion on their website.  Another noteworthy feature of the case is that the plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages, except potential attorneys’ fees if they prevail on their injunctive relief claims.

A third reason this case is interesting, from a legal standpoint, is that the plaintiffs are seeking, at least primarily, the promulgation of regulations, rather than enforcement actions.  In the field of administrative law, lawsuits to compel government agencies to undertake specific enforcement actions are notoriously difficult to win, both on the merits and on standing grounds.  After Massachusetts v. EPA, however, a distinction has emerged between actions to compel agency enforcement, versus actions to compel agencies to promulgate rules.  The later, under Massachusetts, is a stronger claim, especially for purposes of plaintiffs establishing standing, but potentially also on the merits, if there is a clear enough statutory mandate for an agency to regulate.  Another similarity to Massachusetts v. EPA is the complex issue of standing to sue, which was the focus of the defendants’ motion to dismiss and a large section of the opinion – as in Massachusetts, a case about the EPA’s refusal to regulate carbon dioxide emissions and the resulting effects of rising sea levels – the plaintiffs can articulate concrete and particularized injury-in-fact (medically diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and its direct effects on school behavior and learning), but the alleged injury is the combined effect of innumerable independent actors and factors, which in the aggregate are an indirect but foreseeable result of a government agency’s refusal (or failure) to regulate the activities of these actors.

From a more abstract policy or political science standpoint, the opinion (and even more so the original complaint) highlights the tradeoffs with guaranteed rights, such as Second Amendment rights – the idea that protection of any right means a restraint on another individual, group, or entity.  Or, from the other angle, protection of the rights of disabled children in Chicago (the plaintiff class in Powell) would seemingly require injunctive relief that would entail restraints on the gun trade that many perceive as an infringement on the right to bear arms.  If the right to bear arms includes an individual right to buy and keep firearms for self-defense, an implication of this right might be a readily accessible retail market for acquiring guns.  The market infrastructure necessary to make guns widely available for purchase, in turn, means there will inevitably be a certain amount of straw purchasers, dealers who knowingly violate gun laws, gun thefts, a secondary market for used guns that blurs into the black market, and individuals who become legally ineligible for gun ownership (statutorily “prohibited persons”) after they are already in possession of some firearms. These are the types of spillover effects that the plaintiffs outline in their complaint, and that the relevant state statutes (Illinois’ FOID Act) were supposed to address, at least in part.  It will be interesting to see how the case progresses, and if the case settles or results in a favorable verdict for the plaintiffs, if the state is in fact able to implement the changes the plaintiffs seek.