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In this 2013 file photo, John Jackson, co-owner of Capitol City Arms Supply, shows off an AR-15 assault rifle for sale at his business in Springfield, Ill. Under a new state law, such weapons are banned unless their owners register the weapons with the Illinois State Police. A WBEZ analysis shows that the lowest registration rates are found in rural downstate counties.

Seth Perlman

After Illinois banned assault weapons, rural gun owners registered very few of them

By some indications, downstate White County has its fair share of gun enthusiasts. State records show more than 4,300 people are registered to own a firearm in the rural jurisdiction, which borders Southern Indiana and sits less than an hour’s drive west of Evansville.

That’s nearly half the county’s adult population.

Last year, a White County judge issued a restraining order in an effort to prevent the state’s newly enacted assault weapons ban — the Protect Illinois Communities Act (PICA) — from taking effect. The order didn’t last long, however, as the case was consolidated with other downstate cases and eventually dismissed by an Effingham County judge in August.

And later that year at a town hall, the White County sheriff and state’s attorney reassured residents that deputies would not go door to door enforcing the ban.

The law bans the sale, possession and distribution of weapons like the AR-15 and other handguns and rifles defined as “assault weapons.” But the law allows those who already legally owned those guns before Jan. 10, 2023, to keep them — if they register them with the state. The same goes for certain ammunition and accessories specified in the law.

Ultimately, just 23 White County residents — or 0.5% of registered gun owners — registered firearms and accessories banned under the PICA with the Illinois State Police by the Jan. 1 deadline, in accordance with the new law.

It’s one of the lowest registration rates among Illinois counties.

While those figures are low throughout the state, a WBEZ analysis finds the lowest rates are more often found in rural counties downstate than in more populous counties, including those around some of the largest cities such as Aurora, Bloomington, Champaign, Joliet, Moline, Springfield and Waukegan.

More than 29,000 licensed gun owners — about 1.2% of the more than 2.4 million statewide — had registered an assault-style weapon by the Jan. 1 deadline this year, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. And despite the state police keeping the online registration portal open, the numbers remain low across the state. Another 6,200 registered their weapons in January.

It’s not known how many FOID cardholders in Illinois possess guns that are now banned, but gun advocates and experts suggest that number is in the tens of thousands.

Based on a nationwide 2022 Washington Post-Ipsos poll, an estimated 20% of all gun owners said they own an AR-15, a military-style assault weapon and the bestselling rifle in the U.S. Registration rates in Illinois are but a fraction of that estimate. For example, McLean County in central Illinois, whose county seat is Bloomington, had the highest rate of any Illinois county at just 1.8%.

The lowest rates in Illinois were found in rural counties in Southern Illinois, like Jasper and Calhoun counties, where just 0.5% and 0.7% of gun owners, respectively, registered their weapons by the deadline. These counties also had the highest rates of gun ownership in the state. The Washington Post-Ipsos poll showed AR-15 owners were overrepresented in rural areas. While 17% of adults nationwide were located in rural areas, 28% of AR-15 owners reported living in rural areas, according to the poll.

Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who studies gun policy, said Illinois’ low registration numbers are not surprising. California passed an assault-weapons ban in 2016, requiring owners to register their weapons with that state’s justice department. Winkler said gun and magazine registration rates are usually low across the board.

“It’s like asking people to register if they smoke pot,” Winkler said. “Some people might register, if they think they’re going to be safer and protected that way. And other people are gonna be like, ‘I’m not giving [authorities] that information and I’m never gonna get caught anyway. So what’s the matter?’ ”

White County Sheriff Jordan Weiss said his county’s low registration rates are probably because most residents, including himself, believe PICA is an infringement on people’s Second Amendment rights.

“If they don’t register then that’s on them,” Weiss said. “I’m not going to step on anybody’s Constitutional rights for that so long as it’s our lawful gun owners and they have a gun at home. That’s their business.”

Kendall County, an exurban area west of Chicago, has one of the state’s highest registration rates, but it still represents a small share — about 1.7% — of FOID cardholders in that county. Kendall County Deputy Dan Briars said they have fielded calls from people wanting clarification on how the registration process works.

“I think people are trying to interpret and comply with the law,” Briars said.

The state’s most populous county, Cook County, appears to be a bit of an outlier with a registration rate lower than the statewide rate. Records show 6,364 out of nearly 731,000 licensed gun owners in Cook County, or less than 1%, registered their banned weapons before Jan. 1. However, the county had already adopted its own assault weapons ban in 2013. The Blair Holt Assault Weapons Ban included many of the same weapons and accessories later banned by the statewide law, including the popular AR-15 rifle, magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds and many other items.

“Law-abiding citizens”

Democratic state lawmakers introduced the PICA in early 2022, but didn’t pick it back up until later that year in response to the Highland Park Independence Day mass shooting where seven people were killed and several others were injured. And while proponents championed the measure as a step to help address gun violence and increase public safety, several Republican lawmakers were vehemently opposed, arguing it violates people’s constitutional rights to bear arms.

In response to Gov. JB Pritzker signing the measure into law last January, some gun rights advocates and lawmakers filed a flurry of litigation in state and federal courtrooms, challenging the law on constitutional grounds. And, according to WBEZ’s tally, more than 80 county sheriffs released statements saying their officers would not comply with or enforce the law.

Weiss was one of them. In his county of about 14,000 people, Weiss said his officers don’t encounter many gun-related crimes. In a statement posted to the White County Sheriff’s Facebook page last year, he wrote that neither he nor anyone at his office “will be checking to ensure that lawful gun owners register their weapons with the State, nor will we be arresting or housing law abiding individuals that have been arrested solely with non-compliance of this Act.”

Kendall County Sheriff Dwight Baird, in his statement, wrote he doesn’t believe “stricter gun control laws or disarming law-abiding citizens will make the State of Illinois or the citizens of Kendall County any safer.”

Deputy Briars, who reports to Baird and has lived in Kendall County for 17 years, said he would like to see a reduction in gun-related crimes, but, “Our goal is not to turn law-abiding citizens into criminals.”

Meanwhile in Cook County, Sheriff Tom Dart’s office indicated its full support of the law and its plans to enforce it, according to a statement to WBEZ. Officials added that the only way they could find out if an individual was in possession of an unregistered, banned firearm would be to search their home or car on suspicion a crime had been committed.

“These limitations make the process of obtaining search warrants to pursue these cases incredibly difficult,” the statement read.

Meanwhile, gun owners across the state continue to openly defy the law’s registration requirement. Former state lawmaker and Republican candidate for Gov. Darren Bailey posted a series of posts on X, formerly known as Twitter, taunting Gov. Pritzker to seize his guns, asserting that he will “die on his porch” before giving up his weapons. He also posted a 40-second video where he called the registration requirement “illegal” and used three semi-automatic guns to fire at a target that read, “I will NOT comply.”

Rick Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, said some gun owners feel singled out by this new registration requirement. He said people are also worried about incriminating themselves by registering their personal information into the state’s system. They also fear that registering late, which violates state statute, will open them up to persecution, he said.

“A lot of people are moving their stuff out of state so they can ignore [the law],” Pearson said. “They are frustrated. They don’t understand what’s going on.”

“The law of the land”

Pearson and other gun rights advocates have pointed to confusion surrounding the legislative rulemaking process as a reason for low registration rates. Over the past couple months, the state police presented to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules a draft proposal of rules for how the law should be enforced, which included the specific guns and accessories that would need to be registered. This bipartisan committee of state lawmakers, known as JCAR, reviews rules from state agencies on how to carry out laws.

During multiple public meetings in Chicago and Springfield, gun owners and advocates called the law vague, unconstitutional and said they will simply not comply. Republican state representative Ryan Spain, who voted against the measure, sits on that committee. At one of those meetings, Spain said he was frustrated the rules weren’t sorted out before the Jan. 1 deadline this year. The agency officially adopted the rules in mid-January.

“We could have … tried to resolve many of these issues much earlier on, so that firearm owners throughout the state of Illinois, trying to understand this very complicated and conflicting legislation … could have better guidance on what they need to do,” Spain said.

The Illinois State Police has since posted dozens of frequently asked questions regarding registration requirements, the types of guns and accessories that would need to be registered and cybersecurity protections for those who register. In a statement to WBEZ, state police spokesperson Melaney Arnold said the agency is focused on “compliance and safety.”

“[The law] does not set forth penalties for late submissions,” Arnold wrote. But a county can deem a late registration to be invalid or insufficient.

Thousands of weapons were registered after the deadline this year. From Jan. 1 through Jan. 31, more than 6,000 individuals registered an additional 11,802 firearms, 7,459 accessories and 100 pieces of ammunition.

According to the law, a person caught with an unregistered, banned firearm could face a misdemeanor for a first offense and a felony charge for each subsequent violation. But with most Illinois sheriffs declaring they will not penalize noncompliant gun owners, how the law will be enforced remains unclear.

However, Democratic State Sen. Bill Cunningham, who chairs JCAR, said ignorance of the law is not a valid excuse for flouting the registration requirements. Cunningham, who supported the bill, said it will ultimately come down to how law enforcement officials will carry out their new duties.

“Whether you are affirmatively going out and enforcing the law, or enforcing it when you come across a situation where you find someone to be in violation — I don’t know that, in the latter example, so many sheriffs are going to refuse to enforce the law,” Cunningham said. “But I think anyone who believes in law and order should enforce the law of the land.”

How we reported this story

WBEZ obtained data from the Illinois State Police indicating the number of people who registered banned weapons, ammunition or accessories under the Protect Illinois Communities Act — both in total and county by county. In order to understand the proportion of gun owners who registered under PICA, we divided the number of individual registrants for each county by the number of county residents holding a Firearm Owners Identification Card. We also reviewed the number of registrants per capita and by the population over 21, the age required to get a FOID card without a parent sponsor. In addition to the number of individuals registering, state police also released the total number of banned weapons, ammunition and accessories registered throughout Illinois. Data only included total counts; no personally identifying information was revealed. For more information, see the statistics page on the Illinois State Police website. County population data are five-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2022 American Community Survey.

Mawa Iqbal covers state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow @mawa_iqbal

Amy Qin is a data reporter for WBEZ.

Matt Kiefer is WBEZ’s news applications editor.

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