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Fingerprints for FOID cards? Rival gun control bills spark potshots from legislators, police, gun lobby

Both bills seek to reform and improve the FOID card, which Illinois residents must have to legally own firearms or ammunition. But each side accuses the other of missing the target.

A customer browses firearms at Marengo Guns in Marengo in January.
A customer browses firearms at Marengo Guns in Marengo in January.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times file

SPRINGFIELD — Dueling gun control bills are heading for a showdown on the floor of the state Legislature.

One would require potential gun owners to be fingerprinted to obtain a Firearm Owner Identification Card, entail more frequent renewal of the card and mandate background checks for the private sale of firearms.

The other bill is designed to lessen the strain on gun owners and the Illinois State Police by automatically renewing and digitizing FOID cards in Illinois. It has the backing of the police agency, which issues the cards and handles background checks for gun purchases.

Both bills seek to reform and improve the FOID card, which Illinois residents must have to legally own firearms or ammunition. But each side accuses the other of missing the target.

Supporters of the more stringent measure named it the Block Illegal Ownership Bill. They call the competing bill a “gun-lobby backed” measure that “guts critical background checks” included in their legislation.

Guns on display at Kee Firearms and Training in New Lenox.
Guns on display at Kee Firearms and Training in New Lenox in January.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file.

The Illinois State Police director fired backed that the FOID card system, which the Block Illegal Ownership Bill fortifies, is “antiquated, outdated, inefficient, and ineffective.”

The stricter bill was first introduced after the 2019 shooting in Aurora in which the shooter obtained a firearm even though his FOID card had been revoked and he had felony convictions in other states.

“That’s why we need the fingerprints and background checks for all gun sales,” said Kathleen Sances, president of Gun Violence Prevention PAC Illinois. “We see weaknesses in our licensing system that allow people who are not lawfully allowed to have guns get their hands on them, and they’re killing people.”

State Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, sponsor of the tougher bill, said that the Aurora shooting illustrates why the state needs to remove firearms from those who have their FOID card revoked.

“Right now, more than 27,000 Illinoisans may still be armed despite losing their right to own a gun. And that is a direct result of not making sure that the Illinois State Police has the resources they need to make sure ... people that shouldn’t have firearms don’t,” Villivalam said.

State Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, in 2018.
State Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, in 2018.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

The bill passed the House in 2019, but didn’t advance during last year’s pandemic-truncated legislative session.

The bill would also require FOID card holders to renew the card every five years instead of 10, increase fees for that renewal, and fund support for mental health services of communities affected by gun violence.

Richard Pearson, president of the Illinois State Rifle Association, said his firearm owners’ rights organization would “fight this bill tooth and nail” in the Legislature and in the courts.

“There is no other civil right where you have to offer up your finger to exercise it,” he said. “If a $2 poll tax is too much to pay for the civil right of voting, then … this is certainly too much.”

Pearson said the bill would also add a “mountain of paperwork” for the Illinois State Police, which his organization is already suing for not approving FOID card applications in the time required by state law.

Staff work at Kee Firearms and Training in New Lenox in January.
Staff work at Kee Firearms and Training in New Lenox in January.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

But Villivalam said his bill would actually “break through the bureaucracy” and help the Illinois State Police, because if the agency “has someone’s fingerprints, it is much easier for them to ensure who that person is, and what their background is, and if they should legally own a firearm.”

The competing bill set its sights more squarely on the issues plaguing the state police.

State Police Director Brendan Kelly and a bipartisan group of legislators held news conference on Wednesday to promote the measure.

Their bill would automatically renew FOID cards for those obtaining a concealed carry permit or voluntarily submitting their fingerprints, allow the use of an electronic FOID card, and create a prohibited persons portal to help the police identify those who have revoked FOID cards.

“Our goal is to ensure that we are keeping firearms out of the hands of people who are a danger to themselves and others,” said state Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, the bill’s sponsor. “Our goal is not, however, to hassle safe, responsible gun owners. Through the modernization and streamlining of the FOID card process, I believe we can successfully accomplish both of our objectives.”

Research by the Illinois State Police helped craft the bill, Kelly said.

“This bill will make it harder for the bad guys and simple and safe for the good guys,” the police agency chief said.

Following the news conference, the Gun Violence Prevention PAC released a scathing statement against Koehler’s bill.

Firearms on display at Marengo Guns in Marengo in January.
Firearms on display at Marengo Guns in Marengo in January.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times filr

“Senator Koehler’s gun lobby-backed bill guts real universal background checks in exchange for nothing,” said Sances.

The Illinois State Rifle Association denied backing Koehler’s bill, saying that they were “neutral.”

But Pearson’s group is firing blanks, said a spokesperson for the gun control PAC.

“The gun lobby speaks pretty loudly on just about every piece of gun legislation under the sun, so their silence or claims of neutrality on this bill is deafening,” the spokesperson said.