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Change still on horizon a year after Aurora mass shooting

Pending legislation promises to fix gaps in Illinois gun laws that allowed the shooter to keep the weapon he used to kill five colleagues and wound five police officers.

Memorials outside the Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora, Sunday afternoon, Feb. 17, 2019. Five people were killed in a mass shooting at the company two days earlier.
Memorials outside the Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora a few days after five people were killed in a mass shooting there Feb. 15, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Saturday marks the grim anniversary of the day a disgruntled warehouse worker in Aurora, whose violent past should have prevented him from owning a gun, killed five colleagues and wounded five police officers before dying in a shootout with police.

The gunman, Gary Martin, had his FOID card revoked in 2014 after his history of domestic violence came to light. But he was never forced to give up the Smith & Wesson handgun he used in the Feb. 15, 2019 shooting.

And the question remains: What has changed since the massacre at the Henry Pratt Co. exposed a broken state law that revokes the FOID cards of potentially dangerous people and requires them to give up their guns — but has no built-in mechanism to ensure that happens?

The short answer: Not nearly enough.

To be clear, a firearms owner’s identification card is simply a state license allowing the holder to own and buy firearms. About 2,225,000 Illinois residents have one.

The state’s backlog of people who’ve had their FOID cards revoked — and who have not returned the cards or told authorities how they lawfully got rid of their guns — is daunting and continues to grow.

Of nearly 42,000 people who’ve had their FOID cards revoked since 2015, more than 31,000 remain noncompliant. On average, 10,000 people are added to the revoked FOID list each year.

Brendan Kelly, director of the Illinois State Police, which issues and revokes FOID cards, said despite increased efforts to chip away at the backlog, catching up remains impractical without additional resources to send police officers to knock on the doors of revoked FOID cardholders.

“This is not a matter of opinion, this is a matter of math,” Kelly told the Sun-Times. “The bottom line is without additional resources to remove illegally possessed firearms, the odds still remain too high that another tragedy will occur.”

At a news conference Thursday, Kelly said with limited resources, state police are focused on taking guns away from any person “was charged with a nasty, violent crime,” as opposed to “some old fella who got his FOID not renewed.”

Kelly pinned hopes for lasting change on Illinois Senate Bill 1966, dubbed ‘Fix the FOID.’ It passed the House and is expected to go up for a vote in the Senate before the spring state legislative session ends May 31.

Sen. Julie Morrison, a Deerfield Democrat and the bill’s main Senate sponsor, is confident it will pass. Gov. J.B. Pritzker supports it.

The bill would require fingerprinting FOID card applicants for a background check (fingerprints are currently required only to expedite a concealed carry license application). It would reduce the renewal period for a FOID card from 10 to five years. And it would increase the fee for FOID card applications and renewals from $10 to $20, with part of that money used to fund FOID enforcement.

Kelly estimates the bill will generate about $6.2 million a year for FOID enforcement.

Workers look out an office window following a shooting at the Henry Pratt Company on February 15, 2019 in Aurora.
Workers look out an office window after a shooting at the Henry Pratt Co on Feb. 15, 2019 in Aurora.
Getty

“If it had passed in 2019, we would have been able to give local law enforcement grants and assigned additional resources within state police — man-hours, overtime, etc. — to enforcement efforts,” Kelly said.

After the shooting, state police designated an officer in each of the seven state police zones to coordinate enforcement efforts with local police.

“We owe it to the victims to give them our very best,” Kelly said.

A major sticking point for opponents of the bill is the fingerprint requirement.

“Some folks believe you don’t need a fingerprint to exercise a constitutional right,” said Rep. Keith Wheeler, a Republican from Oswego who voted against the bill. If it becomes law, Wheeler expects a court challenge on constitutional grounds that will delay its implementation.

Richard Pearson, head of the Illinois State Rifle Association, believes a fingerprint database would ultimately be used to take guns away from lawful gun owners.

“The goal is to disarm the population of the U.S,” said Pearson, 77, of Chatsworth, about 100 miles south of Chicago. “The purpose of the Second Amendment is not to hunt, but to protect the citizens against the government.”

Kathleen Sances, head of the Illinois Gun Violence Prevention PAC, helped craft the pending legislation and dismissed such concerns.

“There’s always that extreme right-wing conspiracy that we’re creating a database so your guns can be confiscated,” Sances said with a laugh. “We support law-abiding gun owners, and we respect their Second Amendment right to own firearms but there are people that should not own them and we have to do everything we can to prevent access.”

Had the fingerprint requirement been in place when Martin applied for a FOID card in 2014, a previous domestic conviction in Mississippi would have surfaced and disqualified him.

The conviction, missed by initial background checks, was found by chance weeks later when Martin submitted fingerprints to expedite his concealed carry application.

When a FOID card is revoked, state police send a letter to the cardholder ordering them to surrender their card to police and give their guns to police or another valid FOID cardholder. The revoked card holder must also fill out a “firearm disposition record” documenting the transfer, and submit the forms to police within 48 hours.

Kelly on Thursday said police received more than twice as many of those reports in 2019 as they had the year before — 4,562, up from 2,111.

Crime scene tape surrounds the Shetland Business Park in Aurora after five people were killed and five police officers were wounded by a former employee.
Crime scene tape surrounds the Shetland Business Park in Aurora after five people were killed and five police officers were wounded by a former employee.
Getty

At the same time, local police should receive digital notification of the revocation from state police so they can follow up.

Martin never complied, and there’s no record any law enforcement personnel ever visited him to check.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who has had a team of officers working on FOID enforcement for the past several years, hopes the pending legislation will create a blueprint guiding local police on how to proceed.

“Why is it we can’t map this thing out? Why is it we can’t put together a strategy that goes region to region, door by door and gets rid of the backlog?” asked Dart, who said he’d be willing to take on a leadership role.

“We’ve made it clear that we’d be happy to coordinate for our own region,” Dart said.

In the weeks after the Aurora shooting, state police created a database accessible to local law enforcement listing revoked cardholders, the reason for the revocation and how many guns the cardholder might possess.

Diana Juarez’s father, Vincente Juarez, a forklift driver with three kids and eight grandkids, was killed in the Aurora shooting.

“I know it’s only been a year, but we’re still hoping that one day the laws will change and innocent people won’t be taken away or their lives cut short,” said Diana, 33, who plans to visit her father’s grave Saturday to mark the anniversary.

“I miss when he’d walk through the door at 3:40 p.m. with a smile on his face after his shift and sit on the couch and we’d talk,” she said. “This whole thing could have been prevented if only the laws were there and they could have done their job. In the end, there’s people like us who are still grieving and looking for answers.”

Contributing: Neal Earley