Illinois Tragedy Raises Serious Questions About Record Checks

Guns and Gear | Contributor

By Larry Keane

In the wake of the criminal shooting in Aurora, Ill., state agencies are already identifying the gaps in the system that allowed a prohibited person to illegally obtain a firearm, despite going through multiple background checks. The Illinois State Police (ISP) acknowledge they missed a prohibiting felony record when they issued a Firearm Owner’s Identification Card (FOID) to the murderer. When the felony was discovered as the murderer applied for a concealed carry permit, the local law enforcement agency and the state police both failed to follow-up with the letter he was sent instructing him to surrender his firearm.

The question is, how did this convicted felon pass multiple background checks without his prohibiting record being discovered?

The firearms industry has long supported the federal background check system. And since 2013, when serious gaps were identified in states submitting records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the industry has spearheaded the FixNICS® campaign to close the holes in reporting to prevent this type of situation.

Illinois Aware Of The Issue

Government reports show that Illinois has been aware of its shortcomings in background checks for years. A 2011 audit found that “the effectiveness of the FOID card program is limited in promoting and protecting the safety of the public,” and that there “are significant deficiencies in the reporting of individuals with potentially disqualifying mental health conditions to ISP.”

Since that audit, and in the years leading up to it, Illinois has received millions in federal grant dollars to help improve its background check system. Since 1995, Illinois has received nearly $23 million to help improve its background check system. This includes several grants under the National Criminal History Improvement Program (NCHIP) from FY 1995-2010, totaling $18.3 million and another $4.4 million from NICS Record Improvement Act (NARIP) grants from FY 2010-2013.

Where has that funding gone? In the summary for Illinois grant award in FY 2013, the most recent available, the intention of the funds was to be used to “continue efforts to automate the process of submitting disqualifying records of prohibited persons to the NICS Index.” According to the summary, “Funds will be used to support implementation of a program that consists of two strategic initiatives: the development and implementation of a comprehensive case management system and real-time reporting of all denied persons to NICS. The ISP has made great strides in developing the capability to transmit disqualifying mental health information to NICS, and this project will allow for the capacity to capture information from the courts and other data sources and report all prohibited persons to NICS on a large scale, and on a timely basis.”

The recent tragedy demands an answer to the important question of what Illinois has accomplished with the federal grant funds.

NSSF has the number of records by federal prohibiting factor that Illinois has submitted to NICS. The table here shows that there has been some improvement in submitting records. However, what we don’t know is how many records have not been entered into the FBI’s system.

Number Of Prohibiting Records Illinois Has Sent To NICS

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Controlled Substance 623 822 570
Denied Persons File
Dishonorable Discharge 1 1 1 9 20 32
Felony 2 2 2 3 3 3 3 2,682 5,510 10,428
Fugitive from Justice 1 2 2 1 1 27 31 10
Illegal Unlawful Alien 293 481 795
MCDV 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 227 222 901
Mental Health 1 12 5,168 7,295 25,551 40,593 45,833 47,386 47,554 47,555
Protection/Restraining Order 293 356 411
Renounced U.S. Citizenship 9 25 31
State Prohibitors 2,957 2,957 7,167 10,393 13,854
Under Indictment/Information 1,767 317 1,956
Totals 5 17 5,173 7,300 25,557 43,555 48,795 60,483 65,731 76,543

Because Illinois is a Point-of-Contact state where retailers directly contact the State Police, the table of records provided to NICS is not a full picture of the records searched within the state.

Not Enough Records Going To NICS

As of a 2016 BJS Survey, Illinois had a total of 7,092,400 offenders in its state criminal history file. Of these 6,522,100 were automated and 570,300 were manual. The percent of arrests in the database that have final case dispositions recorded is 70 percent of all arrests. Within the past 5 years, the figure drops to 52 percent. This means that about half of recent arrests did not have full records in the database.

We do know that the state maintains a protection order (PO) file, with 89,726 active records in the state database as of Dec. 31, 2016. This figure is far higher than the number of records submitted to NICS, which presents the danger of a prohibited person leaving Illinois and being able to pass a NICS check in another state. Sharing prohibiting records is a crucial step for public safety.

Before gun control advocates attempt to pass new laws that will only burden law-abiding citizens in Illinois, the state must enforce the laws that are already on the books. Too much is at stake to let existing prohibiting records go un-submitted and unchecked.

Larry Keane is Senior Vice President and General Counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

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