Nearly three weeks after a mass shooting at an Aurora factory, the Illinois State Police announced a sweeping list of reforms aimed at making it harder for people to keep guns after losing their right to own or carry a firearm.
The changes, described in a four-page plan released Wednesday morning, deal with how firearm owner’s identification cards are revoked, how guns are seized and how related records are kept and shared. It calls for greater enforcement of the revocation laws that have long been ignored.
The acting director of the state police, Brendan Kelly, called the proposal “first steps” and stressed that the federal government must do more to address the incomplete FBI databases used to perform background checks on prospective gun buyers.
“The weaknesses of our nation’s background check system remain daunting,” Kelly said. “We simply cannot do it alone.”
The proposed changes — which have the backing of Gov. J.B. Pritzker — would give local law enforcement better access to the list of people whose firearm owner’s identification cards have been revoked. Police and sheriff’s agencies also will be told the reason a card has been pulled and whether the person has returned it and provided an accounting of his or her weapons, as the law already requires.
State police also will start providing local law enforcement with a list of firearms purchased by people whose cards were later revoked. This specific reform could rankle gun rights advocates, who have long objected to the government keeping tabs on who is purchasing guns.
“I am not for people going through people’s personal records,” Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, told the Tribune last week. “You’ve got people who would love to get in there and mess with this. And it’s none of their business.”
It’s unclear how long it will take to implement the changes. In the meantime, the state police will “immediately triage” its current list of revocations and will target the “highest risk individuals” to ensure their guns have been turned over, according to the plan.
The reforms come 2½ weeks after Gary Martin opened fire at the Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora, killing five co-workers and wounding several officers. Martin died in a shootout with police.
As a convicted felon, Martin never should have been allowed to purchase the handgun used in the mass shooting. He was permitted to do so after a background check using five distinct federal databases failed to show his 1995 aggravated assault conviction in Mississippi, records show.
In 2014, Martin passed an Illinois State Police background check to obtain his FOID card, then again months later passed another background check at the gun dealer where he bought a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun. Martin’s criminal history caught up with him later that year when he decided to expedite his application for a concealed carry license and get fingerprinted. His prints flagged his conviction, and the state police denied his concealed carry license and sent him a letter saying his license to own a firearm had been revoked.
The Aurora Police Department also would have been informed of the revocation through a statewide police database. Under the law, Martin should have provided a written account of his firearms to local law enforcement. Instead, he carried the gun for five years until opening fire at Pratt after learning he was losing his job.
“We must take whatever steps we can, large and small, to strengthen the fabric of these systems because any improvement could be the one that makes the difference,” Kelly said. “We must increase sharing of information, the quality and value of information shared, and most importantly, enforcement. Mailed letters are not enough.”
The reforms have support from law enforcement agencies across the country, including the Aurora Police Department. A department spokesman said it’s “impossible to speculate” whether the proposed changes could have prevented the incident, but there are still lessons to be learned from the tragedy.
“We are glad to see the ISP is taking such swift and appropriate action regarding the revocation and reporting of FOID status to their local law enforcement partners,” said Sgt. William Rowley, the department’s spokesman. “Anytime there is an incident of such magnitude as the one we just experienced in our community, we know that it is important to learn from those events and seek ways to help make our communities safer.”
Under state law, rescinded FOID cards must be returned within 48 hours of receiving the revocation notice, and owners must complete a Firearm Disposition Record detailing where their now-illegal guns went.
In 2018, 10,818 FOID cards were revoked, according to state police. Only 2,616 Firearm Disposition Records were returned, meaning more than 75 percent of those with revoked licenses ignored the order.
There have been only 110 arrests since 2014 for failure to return a FOID card or not submitting the Firearm Disposition Record. There were only 10 arrests statewide — or 0.1 percent of ignored revocations — for the offense in 2018.
Improving FOID revocation response has been a topic of conversation among law enforcement officials since the Aurora shooting, with authorities trying to figure out a way to do more despite already strained resources. The Illinois State Police plan — which includes giving local departments more information about the reasons behind revocations — will help authorities prioritize their response, said Brian Fengel, president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and police chief in Bartonville, in central Illinois.
“The step that Director Kelly has taken is a positive step,” Fengel said. “But we’re continuing our conversations about it too. Our main goal is to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who for five years has dedicated gun teams to follow up on revocation notices, applauded reforms in part because they would make crucial information available electronically. Getting information on firearms purchases is also critical, he said. When his office started following up on the revocations, state police routinely denied requests for the firearms purchasing records unless there was another criminal matter pending against the target such as a warrant, his staff said.
Last week, state police reversed course and provided Cook County with details on 26 people whose cards had been revoked and were targeted for a visit, according to the sheriff’s office. Of that group, 14 had purchased guns.
Dart also called for putting some of the reform measures into law. The former state lawmaker said efforts to do this have failed in the past because of pushback from gun rights organizations.
“All of this is not by accident,” Dart said. “It is by design. That’s how they wanted it. They feel to their core that we in government are trying to figure out how to confiscate their firearms.”
In voicing their support for ISP’s plan, local law enforcement has expressed concerns that in a rush to address the weaknesses exposed by the Aurora shooting, legislators will create a series of unfunded mandates for already cash-strapped departments.
California, for example, is the only state that keeps a database of firearms purchasers who have since been prohibited from having guns. Some five years ago, the state dedicated $24 million to hire more agents to address a growing backlog.
“I’m encouraged by these first steps from the Illinois State Police to improve communication and information sharing among agencies and jurisdictions to better protect the public from gun violence,” said Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon, whose jurisdiction includes most of Aurora. “I hope these and future steps include the necessary resources to assure that people who pose a public safety threat do not fall through the cracks, leading to more tragedy.”
Law enforcement agencies are not alone in their calls for reform. Last week, Illinois congressmen asked the FBI to address the flawed national databases that allowed Martin to purchase the gun he used to kill his co-workers.
State Sen. Michael Hastings, a Tinley Park Democrat, also plans to file legislation this week that would require the Illinois State Police to confiscate someone’s firearm owner’s identification card, firearms and ammunition when his or her FOID card is revoked. The state police also would be required to report the person to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System within 15 business days.
The proposal also would require municipalities to report to the state police, for the purpose of reporting to the background check system, anyone who has been “convicted or adjudicated” of any offense or mental health condition that would lead to the revocation of a FOID card. Hastings said providing more information to the database would help keep guns out of the hands of people who might commit crimes.
“This is the biggest no-brainer,” he said.
Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed.
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March 6, 2019 at 10:13PM