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Key Gun Control Group Backs FOID Bill Without Mandatory Fingerprinting Ahead Of House Vote

A gun display case at Central Texas Gun Works in Austin, Texas.
A gun display case at Central Texas Gun Works in Austin, Texas.

A key gun safety group that’s spent the last few years pushing for mandatory fingerprinting for all Illinois gun owners is backing an alternative measure — without mandatory fingerprinting — ahead of a vote on that legislation in the Illinois House Wednesday.

In the final days of the General Assembly’s regularly scheduled spring legislative session last month, Democrats in the House and Senate passed competing bills aimed at fixing Illinois’ backlog of Firearm Owner Identification Card and Concealed Carry License applications — an issue gun rights groups have sued over in both state and federal court.

While GPAC (Gun Violence Prevention Political Action Committee) Illinois had been backing the House Democrats’ version that included mandatory fingerprinting, moderate Democrats in the Senate are refusing to take up the legislation, and GPAC has changed course, endorsing the Senate’s version of the bill.

The House sponsor of that legislation, State Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) confirmed to NPR Illinois this week that he’d be calling the bill for a vote on Wednesday as lawmakers returned to Springfield to complete unfinished business from the legislature’s spring session.

GPAC President Kathleen Sances told NPR Illinois that she didn’t want to walk away from legislation that still has a lot that appeals to gun violence prevention advocates.

“I wanted mandatory fingerprint,” Sances said, outlining outreach efforts by her group to lawmakers advocating for the position. “I mean, GPAC led the effort for over three years to get a mandatory fingerprint.”

But despite what Sances estimated at 33,000 contacts to legislators facilitated by her group, she said she understands political reality and emphasized that other elements of the legislation are worth pushing for, despite not getting mandatory fingerprinting. Those other elements include mandating universal background checks for person-to-person gun sales and millions of dollars for communities impacted by gun violence.

Additionally, instead of mandatory fingerprinting, the Senate’s bill will allow for the Illinois State Police to enter into agreements with other state agencies that already have gun owners’ fingerprints on file. With those gun owners’ permission, the State Police will be able to access their fingerprints from agencies like the Illinois State Board of Education, which holds fingerprints for teachers, school staff and volunteers.

The State Police’s existing incentive that expedites applications for concealed carry applicants who voluntarily provide fingerprints will be expanded to FOID applicants.

State Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago), who helped negotiate the legislation, said by the time the voluntary fingerprinting program is expanded, he believes the State Police will have between 70 to 75% of all Illinois gun owners’ fingerprints.

“That’ll allow us to focus on the individuals who either have revoked FOID cards or should not be carrying firearms,” Villivalam said.

While Villivalam had originally backed mandatory fingerprints, he said the inclusion of universal background checks and $9 million in funding mental health services in the name of gun violence prevention was too important to walk away from a deal. Sances agreed.

“I don’t want to leave that on the table because I don’t know when we’ll get a chance again,” Sances said. “Some fingerprint is better than no fingerprint. And now with incentivized fingerprints, we’ve opened the door…and we can maybe follow up with another bill that mandates fingerprints.”

Backing off mandatory fingerprinting was the key to compromise with gun rights groups like the Illinois State Rifle Association, which filed the federal suit in March claiming Illinoisans’ Second Amendment rights have been hampered by ISP’s long wait times for FOID and CCL applications. The organization is officially “neutral” on the bill, ISRA Executive Director Richard Pearson confirmed.

Lawmakers’ district offices have fielded hundreds of constituent calls about application delays in recent years, but the COVID pandemic exacerbated the issue as interest in gun ownership skyrocketed while the ISP was figuring out a pandemic-era workflow for employees who process FOID and CCL applications.

Both Republicans and Democrats receive those calls, but GOP members have been more vocal in their insistence Gov. JB Pritzker and his appointed State Police Director Brendan Kelly fix the issue. But only one Senate Republican member — Sen. John Curran (R-Downers Grove) — voted for the legislation.

However, a House Republican source told NPR Illinois that between 6 and 10 members of that caucus are likely to vote for the legislation Wednesday.

It remains unclear, though, whether those who’d been pushing for mandatory fingerprinting will be willing to vote for what they consider a watered down bill. Requests for comment to three of those House Democrats went unanswered Tuesday, and a fourth declined to comment.

House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) is a primary co-sponsor of the bill mandating fingerprints and has not directly answered when asked if his caucus will embrace the Senate legislation.

Earlier this spring, State Rep. Kathleen Willis (D-Addison) told NPR Illinois that she wouldn’t be satisfied with a compromise.

“The whole premise behind the bill is the mandatory fingerprints,” Willis said. “If we make it permissive…the people that have things to hide are not going to put their fingerprints through. And that's the whole idea to catch those that are trying to come up with the radar.”

Willis handed off her sponsorship of the bill to freshman State Rep. Maura Hirschauer (D-Batavia) told the Tribune last week that while she’d vote for the strongest legislation that could pass, she didn’t believe the Senate’s bill measured up yet.

Willis has been pushing for mandatory fingerprinting for gun owners since 2019 after a mass shooting in Aurora that left six dead, including shooter Gary Martin.

Five years prior to the Aurora shooting, Martin lied on his FOID card application, leaving off a 1995 aggravated assault conviction in Mississippi. He was granted his FOID card in early 2014, and then cleared a background check when he went to buy a gun. But when he voluntarily submitted fingerprints to speed up CCL processing, ISP connected Martin to his felony conviction, and his application was denied.

His FOID card was subsequently revoked, but Martin never surrendered his handgun — the same gun he used to kill five coworkers and wound several police officers at Aurora’s Henry Pratt Company factory on Feb. 15, 2019.

The bill set for a vote Wednesday provides a mechanism to remove firearms from people with revoked FOID cards who have not yet surrendered their guns.

And another piece of legislation that aims to improve on Illinois’ so-called “red flag” law appears poised to see a vote on Wednesday. The firearms restraining order law — a measure Willis passed three years ago — allows loved ones to petition a judge to issue a temporary restraining order to take firearms from those who post a danger to themselves or others.

Freshman State Rep. Denyse Wang Stoneback (D-Skokie) already passed her legislation that would expand the law to also take away a person’s ammunition and other “firearm parts” in addition to guns and aims to speed up the process by which those items are confiscated after a restraining order is granted.

Additionally, that bill mandates the creation of law enforcement training curriculum on how to use the restraining orders and also asks the State Police to develop a public awareness campaign around the red flag law, as Stoneback says it’s currently underutilized.

The Senate, however, made minor amendments, and the House looks ready to concur with those changes Wednesday.

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