Special report: Gun license numbers don't tell whole story
State data paints an imperfect picture of gun ownership across the suburbs
Part 1 of 3
Even though their towns share a border, those who call Libertyville home are twice as likely to legally own guns as their Vernon Hills neighbors.
Residents of St. Charles are nearly four times more likely to carry a Firearm Owners Identification card than their counterparts in similarly sized Wheeling.
Similar comparisons can be made throughout the suburbs, where residents who are legally allowed to own guns range from as little as seven-tenths of a percent of the population of Campton Hills on the western fringes of suburbia in Kane County to as high as 70 percent of the 1,453 residents of nearby Maple Park.
But in the end, many more suburban residents don't have firearm permits than do.
On average, 11.3 percent of the residents of 100 suburban communities in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties have permits to own a gun -- more than in Chicago and less than downstate.
That's according to a Daily Herald analysis of 2013 Firearm Owners Identification data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Illinois State Police.
Though limited and imprecise, the data paints as clear a picture of legal gun ownership in the suburbs and throughout the state as anyone can get, since federal law bans the creation of any type of gun registry.
The data obviously does not include illegal guns, which some towns with low FOID rates -- from Round Lake Park to Chicago -- struggle against. And some permit holders might not own guns.
Even law enforcement officers lack access to a detailed list of legal gun owners. Police can check individuals by name for FOID status but often don't have that data available when responding to calls. State law prohibits release of such lists, a measure intended to maintain individuals' privacy and reduce the risk of firearm thefts.
Police and other experts note the state's FOID data is muddied because of restrictions on the type of information that can be released to the public and the condition of the database. Records kept by the state police include addresses as much as 10 years old, misspelled town names and municipalities frequently assigned to the wrong county.
Use of mailing addresses also inflates gun ownership rates in more rural communities, where residents living in unincorporated areas are counted among the neighboring towns' actual populace.
"Seventy percent seems a little high, so they must be counting the unincorporated areas, too," said Maple Park Police Chief Mike Acosta, whose town's rate of FOID cardholders is almost double the next town on the list, Lake Villa, at 38.8 percent.
"It doesn't bother me, because those are legal guns and those are legal owners (who) usually know how to handle a gun. It's the ones who have something illegal you have to worry about," Acosta said.
Conversely, Campton Hills' rate is likely so low because the town was only incorporated a few years ago and gun owners there probably had other towns listed as their mailing addresses. Though people are required to notify the Illinois State Police and get a new card when their names or addresses change, many do not.
Police officials and others say there are a number of reasons why the rate of FOID cardholders varies so much among the suburbs.
"If there are no gun shops and no gun ranges in your town, you're obviously not exposed, and your desire is less," said Barry Soskin, owner of Article 2 Gun Range in Lombard, where about 13 percent of the residents are licensed by the state to own firearms.
The website wheretoshoot.org lists 14 gun ranges in the six-county suburban region.
In addition to Maple Park and Lake Villa, many of the other suburbs with higher than average rates of FOID cardholders are semirural, like Hampshire at 37.7 percent, Elburn at 33.2 percent and Antioch at 29.4 percent, the state records show.
"I believe that there are a large percentage of firearms in this community because it's a hobby or for sport," said Lake Villa Police Chief Ronald Roth. "I would hope everyone that has a gun has a legal gun."
The same pattern plays out across the state. More rural areas have higher rates of licensed gun owners. About 17.8 percent of the state's 1.6 million FOID cardholders hail from the 100 suburbs analyzed by the Daily Herald.
Meanwhile in Chicago -- which is home to roughly a quarter of the state's population -- only about 5.3 percent of the population has FOID cards. That amounts to just 8.8 percent of Illinois' FOID holders.
Outside of Chicago and the immediate suburbs, the number of residents licensed to own guns spikes. Combined, nearly 20 percent of the population in the state's 96 counties outside of the Chicago area is legally licensed to own firearms. That includes 13 downstate counties where more than 30 percent of residents have state-issued firearm owners licenses.
In tiny Calhoun County at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers northeast of St. Louis, 43.3 percent of the 5,089 residents are licensed gun owners, the highest in the state, according to the state police records.
Illinois has some of the strictest firearm ownership laws in the country. It is one of just three states that require a license both to own a gun and to buy a gun. The other two are New Jersey and Massachusetts. Illinois also was the last holdout to adopt a concealed weapon law, with the application process beginning Jan. 5.
So it doesn't surprise most experts that historically Illinois has one of the lowest rates of legal gun owners in the country, according to numerous surveys.
Statewide, roughly 12.5 percent of Illinois' population is licensed to own a gun.
National studies by the University of Chicago and Boston University have shown states such as Alaska, Montana and Wyoming, known for hunting and with less restrictive laws, have triple the gun ownership rates as Illinois. Those same studies suggest that as recently as 2012, gun ownership nationwide was at about 35 percent of the population.
Gun advocates complain Illinois' gun laws are so restrictive that they push business out of the state.
Soskin's Lombard shop also sells firearms. Not only do customers have to be licensed to buy a gun from him, they either must have a FOID card to use the range or be supervised by someone who is licensed. Because it often takes 30 business days or more to receive a state-issued firearm owner's license, the state's gun laws put his business at a disadvantage, he said.
"That's my biggest gripe. I have to go through more hoops to make sure my customers are qualified before I can even talk to them," he said. "There are 47 states that don't think it's necessary."
There is no evidence that FOID rates have any bearing on the safety of a community. Annual state and federal crime reports don't even track gun-related crimes. Suburban gun-related murder rates are routinely low.
In St. Charles, where 23.2 percent of the population is licensed to own firearms, Police Chief Jim Lamkin doesn't believe the higher number of licensed gun owners makes the community safer. He said that the city has experienced a very low number of gun-related crimes over the years.
"Gun ownership may make a community feel safer," he said. "But you're safe if you're one of those people that doesn't own a firearm. I wouldn't say there's a need to protect your home in St. Charles, because we have a very safe community and we feel the police do an excellent job of protecting our residents, but that shouldn't negate anyone's ability to own a gun."
• Part 2: Do more gun permits mean more guns? A close look at two suburbs shows that's not necessarily the case.
• Part 3: Illinois issues permits to those who want to own guns, but local law enforcement has limited access to the information.