Illinois residents across the state, and across party lines, largely support more gun regulations. That’s according to the results of an NPR Illinois - University of Illinois Springfield survey. We took a look at the new data and explored what might be behind the numbers.
Gun violence has touched all areas of the country, including here in Illinois. Less than a year ago, a mass shooting in Aurora, combined with high profile shootings in other states, re-opened the gun debate in Illinois.
There have been renewed calls for more statewide firearm restrictions, but nothing major became law this year. So when researchers polled likely Illinois voters for this latest survey, they asked about specific ideas state lawmakers are considering, including requiring mental health background checks on all firearm purchases, fingerprinting Firearm Owner ID card applicants, and banning what are commonly considered "assault-style" weapons and magazines that can carry more than 10 bullets at a time, considered "high capacity."
The results show 92 percent of Illinoisans support making mental health background checks more stringent. That’s about the same number as a similar survey from last year. Another 74 percent back the idea of banning assault weapons, a big jump from 2018. While there is a partisan split on that question, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans are in favor.
Meanwhile, 88 percent support requiring fingerprints to get a Firearms Owner’s Identification (FOID) card, and three out of four Illinoisans favor banning high capacity magazines.
But while the numbers show broad support, the gun debate still sparks passions on both sides.
Hundreds of people turn out each year for an annual gun owner’s rally earlier this year in Springfield to demonstrate against state policies they believe might infringe on their Second Amendment rights. Though this year's rally took place not long after the Aurora shooting, many gun owners there believed increased regulation spurned in the wake of that tragedy would unfairly target them.
Steven Stewart runs a gun shop and shooting range in Bloomington. He said he feels like an odd man out.
“It’s just sad what’s kind of happening here," he said. "We’re being victimized and demonized for wanting to be a gun owner.”
However, Alicia Schemel with Moms Demand Action, a group that’s advocating for more state gun regulations – sees it differently.
“If you are a responsible gun owner, you can still have a gun," she said. "No one is trying to take any guns away, we're just trying to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them.”
As in many states, Illinois also has plenty of people who lobby on behalf of gun owners to fight changes that could make it harder to purchase a firearm.
Richard Pearson of the Illinois State Rifle Association is one of those people. He said Illinois already has some of the strictest requirements in the country, which includes scanning a person’s mental health history.
“We also have to have a background check no matter who we sell a gun to, whether it’s at a gun show, not a gun show, or a neighbor, or an uncle, or through a dealer," he explained. "So we’re very tight in Illinois.”
Pearson offered his take on the survey's suggestion that Illinoisans widely support changing Illinois' gun policies:
“It tells me as a gun owner that we are not getting our message out about what’s really going on, to be honest with you, and we have a great deal of trouble with that," he said.
Of the more than 1,000 people polled for the NPR Illinois UIS survey, over a quarter of those identified as being gun owners, which is in line with Illinois census data, and even a majority of gun owners say they support all of the proposals. That includes those who are located downstate, where gun rights are often a campaign issue.
A single poll is unlikely to result in major change at the state level. AJ Simmons, who heads up the UIS Survey Research office that conducted the survey, explained the same is true at the national level.
“Just because we see high levels of support from folks when it comes to these policies doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see action," he said.
But it’s likely those pushing for more gun control, like suburban Democratic Representative Kathleen Willis of Addison, will use the data in debate.
“I don’t think it’s a mandate," she said of the survey's results. "I think what it does is it reaffirms my conviction to continue going forward.”
The 2019 Illinois Issues Survey used an online panel of 1,012 Illinois registered voters and ran from Sept. 13-23, 2019. It was designed and analyzed by the Institute for Legal, Legislative, and Policy Studies; the Survey Research Office; and NPR Illinois; all units of the UIS Center for State Policy and Leadership.