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[AP/Nam Y. Huh]

Gun Policy

After Aurora Shooting, Lawmakers Revive Proposal to Disarm Unlawful Gun Owners

Illinois revokes thousands of gun licenses every year. But it’s rare for law enforcement to remove firearms from owners barred from having them.

Legislators in Illinois are scrambling to address a gap in state law that many have blamed for allowing the gunman who killed five people in Aurora last week to keep his handgun even after he was banned from possessing firearms.

Kathleen Willis, a Democrat who represents several suburban areas west of Chicago, told The Trace that legislators are fashioning a bill to ensure law enforcement does a better job of seizing firearms from people whose state gun licenses have been revoked. The contours of the legislation were still being hammered out, but Willis said the proposal would likely include funding to hire extra officers to track down the thousands of invalidated license holders who fail to turn over their guns every year.

Where the funding will come from is one of the many questions to be decided over coming weeks. One idea being batted around is to raise the price of a gun license from $10 to $30 or $40, a move that would generate additional revenue, but runs the risk of angering gun-rights groups, who are already critical of the licensing system.

The funding issue is likely to be a major sticking point. Past legislative efforts to force the retrieval of guns from revoked license holders deteriorated in large part because of concerns that the added workload would strain cash-strapped police departments. “While law enforcement totally agrees that we need to close this loophole, they need the resources to do it,” Willis said. “That’s why we’re looking to put some money behind it.”

The push has taken off since the Illinois State Police acknowledged that it initially failed to detect 45-year-old Gary Martin’s 1995 conviction for an aggravated assault in Mississippi before issuing him a Firearm Owners Identification card, or FOID, in January 2014. Martin’s felony record surfaced two months later after he applied for a concealed carry permit and submitted his fingerprints to speed up approval of his application.

The discovery of Martin’s conviction prompted state officials to revoke his FOID. But by that time he had already used the license to purchase a Smith & Wesson pistol. On Friday, Martin used that pistol to kill five of his coworkers at the Henry Pratt Co. plant in Aurora. He died during a subsequent shootout with police, which left five officers injured.

Illinois is one of only three states where gun owners have to maintain a license to own firearms, a requirement that is partly designed to prevent people from keeping their weapons even after they commit a felony or fall into another category that is meant to preclude them from firearm ownership.

But the Aurora shooting has renewed attention on what critics say is a flawed system. The State Police yank thousands of FOID cards every year — more than 10,800 in 2018 alone. Under current law, gun owners whose licenses have been revoked have 48 hours to transfer their guns to a valid license holder or turn them over to police. If they fail to do so, police have the option of asking for a warrant to visit them at home and seize any guns they might find, but this rarely happens. The result: scores of illegal weapons on the streets.

“I can’t help but believe that the pathetic system that the state has in place has contributed significantly to the violence that we see on a day-to-day basis,” said Cara Smith, chief policy officer for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s a terribly broken system, and I’m hopeful that this recent tragedy in Aurora will be the impetus for finally effectuating reform, because it’s long overdue.”

Similar issues have cropped up around the country as an increasing number of states have enacted laws aimed at actively disarming domestic abusers and other people whom a court deems dangerous. Concerns that people were ignoring a 2014 Washington State mandate requiring many subjects of domestic-violence restraining orders to surrender their firearms prompted officials in the Seattle area to set up a regional task force charged with retrieving weapons from these individuals. The task force recovered 50 firearms in its first two months in operation last year.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, a vocal critic of Illinois’s FOID revocation process, took the unique step of establishing a Gun Team whose chief mission is to retrieve firearms from people whose licenses have been pulled. The team consists of eight or nine dedicated investigators who operate mostly in the unincorporated parts of the county. Since the team’s inception in 2013, investigators have recovered more than 1,000 guns.

Smith, the sheriff’s chief policy officer, believes that other agencies should be prioritizing this type of work. “When the sheriff started his gun team, no one gave him extra resources; he moved people around and found a way to get it done because it had to be done,” Smith said. “There is a resource issue, we hear it all the time, but what’s a bigger priority than saving lives and preventing gun violence?”

A similar program is weeks away from launching in Kane County, which shares a border with Cook County and is where the mass shooting took place. The program would likely not have stopped Martin from keeping his pistol, however, as it will focus on the county’s unincorporated areas.

Illinois lawmakers have made several attempts to crack down on people who hold on to their guns after losing their FOID cards, but the proposals were flawed in crucial respects. In December 2015, Representative Gregory Harris, a Democrat from Chicago, sponsored legislation to make it a requirement that law enforcement attempt to seize a revoked license holder’s firearms. But the bill also would have banned anybody on the federal Terrorist Watchlist from owning guns, a provision that triggered an immediate backlash from gun-rights groups. The National Rifle Association denounced it as a violation of Americans’ due process rights. And as The Trace has previously reported, critics on both sides of the aisle have argued that the watchlist’s criteria it too broad and ambiguous, and may strip innocent people of their gun rights.

Eventually, state senators split Harris’s bill in two. In early 2016, Democrat Julie Morrison of Deerfield introduced one bill to require police to try and seize firearms from revoked license holders, and a separate bill containing the Terrorist Watchlist provision. After those measures failed, Morrison took another stab at the gun seizure requirement in 2017, but it, too, never advanced.

While pairing it with the Terrorist Watchlist provision was controversial, the gun seizure requirement faced a steep uphill battle anyway, in no small part because it lacked funding to handle the flurry of cases that law enforcement would have been forced to investigate as a result. In this respect, Illinois might draw lessons from California. Legislation passed there in 2001 created a program within the California Department of Justice to pinpoint gun owners become barred from possessing firearms after buying them. Lawmakers subsequently pumped millions of dollars into the program to pay investigators to find those owners and seize their guns.

Investigators struggled to keep up as California’s increasingly strict gun laws resulted in more and more gun owners being flagged each year. In 2013, their backlog nearly eclipsed 20,000 cases. State officials responded to the problem by steering more money toward the program. As of July, the backlog was down by more than half. Governor Gavin Newsom recently proposed another multimillion dollar increase.

In Illinois, lawmakers will be pondering where to place the onus for retrieving guns from prohibited possessors in their state. The responsibility could be assigned to local police, the state, or some combination of the two. Jim Kaitschuk, the executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, argued that it made more sense for the Illinois State Police to be tasked with removals, since they run the FOID system and are privy to more information about license holders. “If we’re going to be required to do something like this, then funding would have to come along with it,” Kaitschuk said. “You’re talking about the potential for an awful lot of cases, and our resources are already stretched thin.”