How far do Illinois' strict gun laws really go?

Despite being one of the few states in the country to require both a permit and background check before purchasing a firearm, Illinois still deals with a significant number of firearms crimes.

Even as legislators beef up laws designed to keep firearms out of the wrong person's hands, law enforcement officials, gun dealers and researchers say a combination of neighboring states' laxer gun laws, superseding federal laws and complicated reporting processes hinder those efforts.

Many Illinois residents also are subject to gun laws imposed at multiple levels of government — municipal, county, state and federal regulations — that sometimes can be at odds with one another.

Since a gunman killed seven people and injured more than three dozen others during a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, calls for even stronger gun laws statewide have intensified, with efforts already underway in some suburbs to ban the sale of what officials label assault weapons.

However, others don't believe there's a way to simply legislate away a crisis that continues to plague not just the state, but the entire country.

“There's no one answer, and boy I wish I had the magic eight ball that could solve the problem,” said Buffalo Grove Police Chief Steven Casstevens. “There are control systems in place, though some work better than others.”

How Illinois stacks up

Illinois is one of three states that requires a permit to purchase any type of firearm and a background check for all firearm sales. The other two are Connecticut and New Jersey, according to a report issued by Everytown For Gun Safety earlier this year.

Illinois ranks sixth in the report for strictest gun laws nationally, but it is cited for inadequacies regarding child safety requirements for newer handgun models and no statewide prohibition on automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines.

“Assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are the weapons of choice among mass shooters because they are designed to allow human beings to hunt and kill other human beings,” said Ari Freilich, state policy director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Unfortunately, a statewide ban, while still helpful, may not have as much impact on the state's overall gun violence problem.”

California ranks highest nationally for strict gun laws in the Everytown report and has one of the lowest per capita gun violence rates — 8.5 gun deaths per 100,000 residents. Researchers cite the state's ban on guns categorized as assault weapons for California's lower-than-average gun violence rate.

Illinois ranks 27th among the 50 states in gun violence, with a rate of 14.1 deaths by firearm per 100,000 residents, according to the report.

The report notes that while Illinois gun laws are strict, those of the five bordering states are “much weaker” and that “an outsized share of likely trafficked guns recovered in Illinois are originally purchased out-of-state.”

Gun safety advocates also have praised the state for banning so-called “ghost guns” earlier this year, which mandates all gun parts sold contain serial numbers and come with a background check.

One of the other more recent efforts to curb gun violence in Illinois was the state's firearm restraining order, more commonly referred to as a “red-flag law.” Passed in 2019, the law allows police or a family member to request firearms be seized through a civil court process if firearm owners are determined to be a danger to themselves or others.

However, those weapons can be returned just two weeks later, though a six-month restraining order is available under certain circumstances.

“It's a tool that might not get taken out of the toolbox that frequently,” Freilich said.

Police or school officials also can submit “clear and present danger” reports to Illinois State Police about individuals perceived to be a threat. State police officials use these reports to determine if someone should be allowed to own firearms, or they could result in a state-issued firearm-owner's identification card being revoked.

Getting armed

Illinois firearm dealers are worried additional legislative action would further hinder their ability to operate. Many say the state's current laws already create a higher burden than their brethren deal with in other states.

“Just the addition of the FOID card in itself limits the customer base,” said Mandi Sano, owner of The Gun Doctor in Roselle. “We also have to be highly cognizant of existing gun laws in the town or county where our customers live.”

Sano said she quizzes customers about their intentions with the firearms they're purchasing and always informs them of gun laws that exist specific to where they live. She has turned down sales if she believes a customer plans to ignore a community's gun laws, though she notes that is a rare occurrence.

“I can only think of two instances since I started here in 1999 where that's happened,” she said.

Ultimately, she noted, the onus is on gun buyers to abide by the laws of the communities they live in. If a town has a ban on certain semi-automatic and other weapons, as Highland Park does, firearms dealers still can sell the weapons.

Before Illinois residents can buy a firearm in the state, they must apply for and be issued a FOID card from Illinois State Police. State police officials check the applicant's background for criminal and mental health issues. In 2021, state police officials reported there were 428,850 applicants.

In the past year, more than 1,000 FOID applications were denied each month by state police, records show. On average, another 1,000 FOID cards have been revoked each month during the past year as well.

Casstevens said they receive notices from state police regularly about a resident's FOID card being revoked, which requires the cardholder to turn it into the police and then fill out a form to state police about the disposition of any firearms.

“In Buffalo Grove, I'd say compliance is pretty good and that about 70% do turn it in,” he said. “But the problem is they can turn over the weapons to someone else with a FOID card, including someone living in the same house.”

To buy a weapon, the FOID cardholder has to pass a federal background check every time. There is a 72-hour waiting period to secure the firearm once it's paid for and the background check is being processed.

But despite all the detailed record-keeping, a federal law prevents the creation of any type of gun registry. In addition, Illinois police agencies don't have access to FOID cardholder information either. Many departments have self-documented firearm owners when they have interactions, but agencies can't call up that information from a database when they respond to a home or during a traffic stop.

“With FOID and concealed carry laws, policing has changed a lot over the past decade,” Lake Zurich Police Chief Steve Husak said. “Many years ago, it was automatic that when you saw a weapon in a car or on someone that this was a criminal, but now it's not like that.”

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