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Gun Policy

Bill to Revamp Illinois’s Gun Licensing System Advances Despite Pushback

Lawmakers’ response to the February mass shooting in Aurora would increase the price of a gun license, and require prospective owners to submit their fingerprints.

Illinois Democrats who want to strengthen the state’s gun owner licensing program inched closer to victory this week after the House advanced legislation to close gaps exposed by February’s mass shooting in Aurora. But the bill’s proponents must still overcome objections from members of their party worried about the effects of ratcheting up license fees.

The overhaul’s primary sponsor, Representative Kathleen Willis, a Democrat from Northlake, left a committee hearing on May 21 intent on making revisions after her colleagues raised concerns about increasing the price of a Firearm Owners Identification card, the license needed to legally possess guns in Illinois, from $10 to $50. The revenues would fund a new State Police task force charged with investigating revoked license holders who failed to surrender their firearms, offset State Police administrative costs, and pay for state-run mental health programs.

Some lawmakers were skeptical, however, arguing that the fee hike would have disproportionate effect on low-income residents.

“That’s groceries,” said Democratic Representative Arthur Turner, the deputy majority leader, who represents Chicago’s West Side. “I don’t want people to not be able to avail themselves of the right to gun ownership because they can’t afford it.”

In addition to raising the fee for a FOID card, the legislation would require applicants to get their fingerprints taken and allow the State Police to charge for conducting a background check on them. Altogether, the added measures could push a first-time applicant’s total costs above $100, though some estimates reach over $200. The FOID card would remain valid for five years, a reduction from the current 10, but holders would not have to resubmit their fingerprints when they go to renew it.

Despite their criticisms, Turner and other Democrats in Springfield signaled a willingness to compromise. Lawmakers voted 12-to-7 along party lines to move the legislation out of committee.

Willis said she had previously considered mechanisms to reduce the cost for low-income applicants and would now seek to incorporate that language before requesting a vote from the full House. She hopes to win over enough Democrats to move the bill through the General Assembly and send it to Governor J.B. Pritzker before lawmakers adjourn on May 31.

In April, pollsters surveyed a random sample of Illinoisans who planned to cast ballots in November and found that upwards of three-quarters favored measures like fingerprinting and shortening the duration of a FOID card.

“Our FOID card system is clearly broken,” said Kathleen Sances, president of the Illinois Gun Violence Prevention Action Committee, which was involved in drafting the legislation and hired an outside firm to conduct the poll. “It’s prudent that lawmakers act as soon as they can to prevent another mass shooting in our state.”

Democrats’ legislative supermajority elevates the bill’s chance of success despite vocal resistance from Republican lawmakers and gun-rights groups, who called the measure unconstitutional and threatened to sue “faster than the ink dries” should Pritzker sign it into law. Two GOP committee members shouted “hell no” when it came time for them to vote on the bill Tuesday morning.

The fee increase and fingerprinting requirement are part of a broader gun reform package introduced on the three-month anniversary of the shooting in Aurora. On February 15, a man who had just been fired from his job at the Henry Pratt Company facility killed five of his former co-workers, including a 21-year-old university student on the first day of an internship. He also wounded six others, including five police officers, before dying during a shootout with law enforcement.

Police had granted the gunman a FOID card after a background check based on his name and birthdate missed a 1995 felony conviction in Mississippi — a prohibiting factor that might have arisen if his fingerprints had been run through the system. Police later realized the error and revoked the man’s FOID card, but by that time, he had already purchased a Smith & Wesson pistol, which he used in the attack.

A subsequent investigation by The Trace, and co-published with The Chicago Sun-Times, found that the same FBI criminal history database used to vet prospective gun buyers is also employed to screen teachers, taxi drivers, real estate brokers, community volunteers, and millions of other job seekers every year. But the system is so prone to error that those latter groups are required under federal law to supply their fingerprints. Prospective gun buyers were exempted from that mandate.

Current and former law enforcement officials and other experts told The Trace that fingerprints help background check examiners weed out people with similar names and spot applicants who lied about their identities or presented a fake ID. In 2015, a federal appeals court upheld a District of Columbia fingerprinting requirement for gun owners as a step to “help deter and detect fraud.”

Currently, federal law requires only buyers of particularly destructive weapons — like machine guns — to supply fingerprints. At least six states have extended this to also include purchases of handguns. But in most of the country, handgun buyers are checked using basic biographical information, much of which may not be unique. One 1999 study found that relying on such information could have allowed nearly 12 percent of applicants for various licenses in Florida to pass a background check despite having fingerprint-verified criminal histories.

“There are too many opportunities to miss prohibiting conditions if we’re relying on a name-check,” said Cassandra Crifasi, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University who co-authored a recent report showing that stricter licensing laws were associated with drops in gun trafficking and firearm-related deaths. Crifasi, who owns several pistols, was fingerprinted for her handgun license in Maryland and thought it was only a “minor inconvenience.”

Still, fingerprinting is bound to be a sticking point for many advocates of gun rights. Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, said there are too few state-approved vendors and told us he had to drive more than an hour to get fingerprinted for another type of license in 2013 or 2014. “There doesn’t seem to be any regard for how much this is going to cost a person,” he said. “So I can afford it, but maybe my neighbor can’t.”

In 2018, the State Police received more than 256,000 FOID card applications, and was legally obligated to render decisions on each of them within 30 days. The pending legislation would extend that deadline to 30 business days, excluding weekends and holidays.

“We’re always against the clock,” State Police Lieutenant John Thompson told members of Tuesday’s House committee, lamenting how lawmakers had rebuffed his agency’s past requests for fee increases. The unit that handles FOID card applications, he added, “is regularly on mandated overtime.”

More than 20 other Democrats in the state Senate and House had collectively signed on to co-sponsor the legislation. The lawmakers are also seeking to expand background checks to private gun sales. Under that provision, residents wishing to sell a firearm to another person would have to enlist a federally authorized gun dealer to facilitate the transfer. The dealer could charge $10 for this service.

Law enforcement officials and other supporters say the expansion would prevent sales to FOID card holders who become precluded from gun ownership after receiving their license, and help police investigate guns recovered at crime scenes by making it easier to piece together the weapon’s chain of custody.

But Todd Vandermyde, executive director of Federal Firearms Licensees of Illinois, a gun industry trade group, blasted it as ill-informed meddling in the affairs of private businesses. “It costs them more than $10 to process that transaction,” he told lawmakers. “We don’t think you can confiscate our services, cap our fees, and mandate that we have to do all this work. Pass this, and we’ll be in court.”