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EDITORIAL: Illinois can do more to keep guns away from the mentally unfit

FAL upper receivers ready for assembly rest in a bin. DS Arms, the subject of a story on the economic impact an assault weapon ban would have on manufacturers like themselves, makes semi-automatic assault weapons along with other guns in their Lake Barrington facility. Photographed on Thursday, January 10, 2013. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Sun-Times file photo/Richard A. Chapman

We’ve said many times that Illinois’ gun laws need tightening up, even as we respect the right of responsible men and women to own guns.

But there’s a follow-up point we probably don’t make often enough: Our gun laws already on the books must be strictly enforced — especially those designed to keep guns out of the hands of unstable, potentially dangerous people.

On this, we feel sure, we can all agree.


Unfortunately in Illinois, such fundamental laws go unenforced.

This week, Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson reported that Chicago police routinely fail to notify the Illinois State Police when they recover a firearm from someone who is a “clear and present danger” to themselves or the public. State law requires such notification within 24 hours.  

With that information, the state police could then revoke that person’s FOID — Firearm Owner’s Identification — card because of mental unfitness.

Yet in 37 cases that Ferguson sampled in the last 3 ½ years, that notification never happened.

It’s scary to think that after officers transported someone who had a gun to a mental health facility, as happened in those 37 instances, they failed to take every step possible — and as required by law — to make sure that person’s gun was confiscated and not returned. It’s even scarier to contemplate, given how routinely the police encounter unstable individuals, the hundreds of other times when officers, knowingly or not, have no doubt ignored the law.

To their credit, the Chicago Police Department has responded quickly to Ferguson’s findings, updating orders to clarify when and what officers must do to enforce the mandate. But CPD has not been the only broken link. State police also have fallen short.

We reported back in 2015 that state police were largely ignoring a law requiring that they track guns owned by thousands of people whose FOID cards had been revoked for mental health reasons. A Chicago Tribune report in February 2017 found things hadn’t changed much: State police revoked more than 11,000 FOID cards the previous year, but rarely took guns away as a result.

The Legislature can, and should, do something about that by passing a stalled bill proposed last year by state Sen. Julie A. Morrison, D-Deerfield. SB0890 would tighten enforcement, and give local law enforcement agencies the authority to confiscate guns after FOID cards have been revoked. State police even could ask the courts to issue an arrest warrant for people who fail to submit the required paperwork to prove that they’ve turned their guns over to authorities.

But local law enforcement agencies had “legitimate” concerns about the training and manpower needed to confiscate weapons effectively and safely, Morrison said. “Just going door-to-door and saying ‘Hand over your weapons’ might not be effective.”

But as valid as those concerns are, Morrison’s bill has merit, especially in a day and age when the ability of mentally unstable people to gain access to a gun — and perhaps do harm to themselves as much as to others — is so obviously easy.

Just last week, a mentally unstable young man with a semi-automatic rifle walked into a Waffle House restaurant in Nashville and killed four people. The shooter was from Illinois — and it was because of a glitch in an Illinois law that he had a gun.

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