With Clock Ticking, Fight Over Firearm ID Backlog Fix Centers Around Mandatory Fingerprinting
Democrats in the Illinois House on Saturday narrowly advanced a measure aimed at reducing the state’s massive backlog of applications for Firearm Owner Identification (FOID) cards — the subject of a federal lawsuit filed earlier this year — but the key provision mandating gun owners submit to fingerprinting may prevent it from moving forward.
Including cumpulsory fingerprinting in a fix to the FOID application backlog isn't the intent of a group of Democrats in the Senate, who have been pushing a similar bill aimed at bringing the Illinois State Police FOID application processing times back into compliance.
Instead, the Senate legislation would establish a data-sharing program allowing other state agencies that already collect fingerprints for licensed professionals — for example the State Board of Education’s store of prints for teachers, school staff and volunteers — to add FOID card holders’ prints on file to ISP’s database.
Both approaches, however, would close a so-called loophole in state law that currently doesn’t require background checks for gun sales between immediate family members. They would also combine the FOID card and Concealed Carry License and make a digital option for the would-be FOID/CCL.
Lawmakers are in bipartisan agreement that the state’s FOID backlog must be fixed. It’s been a persistent issue in recent years, but was exacerbated by the pandemic, as gun purchases exploded. Legislators from all over the state report calls to their district offices about FOID card wait times are a top concern for constituents — right after requests for help with issues related to unemployment benefits during COVID.
Freshman State Rep. Maura Hirschauer (D-Batavia), who was made the mandatory fingerprinting bill’s House chief sponsor in the last several days, insisted fingerprinting for all Illinois gun owners is the only way forward for a fix to happen, telling her House colleagues the legislation in the Senate isn’t “agreed to by the advocates who have worked tirelessly on this issue for years.”
The main advocacy organization behind the legislation is the Gun Violence Prevention PAC, and its president, Kathleen Sances, echoed that sentiment in a statement Saturday afternoon after the bill’s close passage.
“Legislators in the House sent a clear message to their colleagues in the Senate today: gun violence is an equity issue that cannot be set aside any longer — we must do our most important job and keep our kids safe by passing the [Block Illegal Ownership] bill now,” Sances said.
This is House Democrats’ second attempt at mandatory fingerprinting for all Illinois gun owners, first proposed in 2019 after a mass shooting in Aurora that left six dead, including shooter Gary Martin.
Five years prior, 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 ISP in order to speed up processing of his concealed carry license, those fingerprints 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.
“It's been more than two years since the Aurora shooting and the public has been waiting for the Illinois legislature to act,” freshman State Rep. Denyse Wang Stoneback (D-Skokie) said during debate. “We can't just keep sending thoughts and prayers.”
Stoneback, who prior to being elected last year founded a nonprofit dedicated to gun violence prevention, is the sponsor of a bill awaiting Senate approval that augments Illinois’ three-year-old “red flag” gun law that allows people to seek court orders to temporarily remove guns from the hands of loved ones who may pose a risk to themselves or others. That legislation would mean a firearms restraining order would 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, the 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.
Republicans were skeptical that mandatory fingerprinting would actually prevent much gun violence, saying those who illegally own guns without FOID cards won’t suddenly send their fingerprints to the State Police if the bill became law.
“Basically this bill, as genuine as it is trying to be, will not prevent somebody who is vicious, determined and evil from performing an act they are bound and determined to do,” State Rep. Mark Luft (R-Pekin) said.
State Rep. Keith Wheeler (R-Oswego) warned mandating fingerprinting would invite further lawsuits against the state for its FOID system.
“The reality is with this bill, opponents are going to file suit upon the signature of the governor should this bill actually pass through these chambers,” Wheeler said. “And the injunction will stop this bill in its entirety, so all the good things that could happen from this bill will be negated by this injunction.”
But State Rep. Kathleen Willis (D-Addison), who originally filed the mandatory fingerprinting legislation after the Aurora shooting and shepherded it through the House exactly two years before the passage of the current bill on Saturday, said she wasn’t particularly stressed about lawsuits.
“That's already happening,” Willis said of existing litigation against Illinois’ FOID card system. “We're already hearing that from the people that believe in the second amendment that's the law of the land — that FOID cards are unconstitutional. This isn't going to change their thoughts. What this is going to do is it's going to stop people…that should not have access to guns at the very beginning.”
Modernizing the State Police’s FOID system is also an element of the competing legislation to address the state’s backlog, including relying on the Secretary of State’s office to update gun owners’ addresses on file.
State Rep. Curtis Tarver (D-Chicago) recounted his Nov. 2019 arrest after a traffic stop, when Chicago Police detained the Democrat for seven hours for carrying a gun with an out-of-date FOID card.
In reality, Tarver renewed his FOID card two days prior but Chicago Police’s database had not yet ingested the renewal information. Tarver said electronic notifications for FOID card renewal deadlines may have prevented his arrest.
“I get a letter to my home address from 10 years ago, and it becomes an issue,” Tarver said. “I take care of it with the State Police, I still get pulled over because the system’s [are] not caught up with each other, and I'm screwed.”
Tarver asked Hirschauer to commit to getting that passed.
Republicans repeatedly asked Democrats pushing the bill to drop it and wait for the Senate to pass over its FOID legislation without mandatory fingerprinting, seeming mystified as to why the majority party would not be on the same page in both chambers.
Hirschauer instead made promises to colleagues that small changes to her bill would be made in the Senate, including reversing the proposed increase in the FOID card’s cost and restoring the 10-year validity of the card that had been brought down to five years.
However, it’s unclear whether the legislation will make it to the Senate, as after the bill’s narrow approval, State Rep. Fran Hurley (D-Chicago), who voted for the bill and managed members of her own Moderate Caucus within the House, filed a motion to reconsider.