A Year Ago, The Aurora Shooting Exposed Loopholes In Illinois Gun Policy. What’s Changed Since?

Five white crosses stand against a red curtain. They are decorated with the names of the victims of the Henry Pratt warehouse shooting. Photos and flowers also adorn the crosses.
Crosses displayed inside the Aurora Historical Society's exhibit about the Henry Pratt warehouse shooting. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Five white crosses stand against a red curtain. They are decorated with the names of the victims of the Henry Pratt warehouse shooting. Photos and flowers also adorn the crosses.
Crosses displayed inside the Aurora Historical Society's exhibit about the Henry Pratt warehouse shooting. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

A Year Ago, The Aurora Shooting Exposed Loopholes In Illinois Gun Policy. What’s Changed Since?

Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman keeps a scrap of paper mounted behind her desk with the names of the five people killed in last year’s shooting at Henry Pratt Co.

“That piece of paper was handed to me right before I walked on for the second press conference. And so every morning I walk in and I turn that light on and I look at that piece of paper,” Ziman said.

Ziman debriefed with the press multiple times in the hours and days following the shooting. It didn’t take long before the issue of the gun used in the shooting came up, and Ziman was asked how the shooter was able to buy the gun despite a violent felony conviction that should have made him ineligible for an Illinois gun permit. And why was he allowed to hold on to the gun for years after that conviction was discovered?

Aurora Shooting, One Year Later

Read more: First Responder Remembers That Awful Day

The tragedy highlighted a longstanding loophole in Illinois gun policy: A statewide failure to go after guns in the hands of people who have been deemed too dangerous to own them. The shooting also exposed cracks at the front end of the state’s gun licensing system, in which a mistake by law enforcement in another state allowed the Aurora shooter to get an Illinois Firearm Owner ID (or FOID) card.

In the weeks following the shooting, the governor, state police, lawmakers and gun control activists promised swift and sweeping action. Even gun rights leaders acknowledged the need to strengthen the back end of the gun licensing system.

But one year after the shooting, Ziman is dismayed by the lack of progress.

“Tell the five families who had to go through Christmas this year for the first time without their loved one, tell those families that, you know, that no … we’ve done absolutely nothing from then until now,” Ziman said.

Here is a look at the gun policy issues highlighted by the Pratt shooting in Aurora on Feb. 15, 2019, and where things stand one year later:

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Lack of fingerprinting in FOID card approval

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What happened in the Aurora case

The shooter applied for an Illinois gun permit, known as a FOID card, in January 2014, according to Illinois State Police. He lied on his application, answering that he had never been convicted of a felony, when in fact he had been convicted of aggravated assault nearly 10 years earlier in Mississippi, for stabbing an ex-girlfriend, according to police records. That conviction would have made him ineligible for a gun permit in Illinois, but it was not discovered in the background check. The FOID application was approved and he purchased a handgun less than two months later.

What we knew a year ago

Illinois State Police officials said when the Aurora shooter applied for a FOID card, they searched multiple national databases for prior convictions as required, but in this case the previous felony conviction was not discovered because the Mississippi Department of Public Safety failed to report it.

Gun control advocates said requiring FOID applicants to submit fingerprints would ensure more complete background checks and Illinois would not be reliant on the reporting methods of other states.

What’s changed since then

Nothing. An omnibus gun bill introduced in the wake of the Pratt shooting would have required fingerprinting as part of a FOID application, but it died in the statehouse. The legislation, first called the Fix The FOID Act and now rebranded as the BIO Bill (for Block Illegal Gun Ownership), passed the Illinois House of Representatives last legislative session but was not called for a vote in the Illinois Senate.

State Rep. Kathleen Willis, D-Addison, who sponsored the bill, said the legislature simply ran out of time during a busy end of session and she expects the bill to pass and be signed by the governor in the current legislative session. But gun control activists, and even some law enforcement leaders, were disheartened that a Democrat-controlled Springfield was unable to make even moderate changes to gun laws in the wake of the Aurora tragedy.

Richard Pearson, the head of the Illinois Rifle Association, said the fingerprinting requirement, along with the bill’s proposal to increase the cost of a FOID card, would have placed unfair burdens on legal gun owners.

“This thing that happened in Aurora is [due to] a mistake that happened in Mississippi. It didn’t happen because of the Illinois State Police or anything they did,” Pearson said. “It’s just an excuse to make it tough on Illinois gun owners.”

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Sharing information on revoked gun permits with local law enforcement

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What happened in the Aurora case

The shooter purchased his handgun in 2014, less than two months after getting his FOID card. Around the same time, he applied for a concealed carry permit and submitted fingerprints with his application. Those fingerprints led to the discovery of his Mississippi conviction, so Illinois State Police denied his concealed carry permit and revoked his FOID card. That revocation prompted state police to send the man a letter notifying him that he was required to turn over his gun permit and any firearms. The only notification to other law enforcement agencies was supposed to be done electronically through a statewide law enforcement database, although it is unclear if that notification was ever made.

WBEZ looked into how FOID revocations were handled in 2013 and found that at the time there was almost no communication between state and local law enforcement. Officials from several big law enforcement agencies, including the Aurora Police Department, told WBEZ that they had never asked for nor received information on revoked FOID cards in their jurisdictions.

What we knew a year ago

Aurora police officials said in the case of the Pratt shooter, they had no record of ever being notified by state police but could not rule out that the notification had been made.

In any case, it was clear in the immediate aftermath of the shooting that state police were still not sharing sufficient information with local agencies about people who had lost the right to own a gun.

What’s changed since then

Illinois State Police are now sharing a lot more information with local law enforcement. The improved sharing includes an online database available to all law enforcement agencies, and a constantly updating revocation list that includes the reason the FOID card was revoked, whether the permit or firearms have been returned and the number of times the FOID card was used to attempt to purchase a gun.

Ziman, the chief in Aurora, said they’ve increased their FOID enforcement actions in the year since the shooting. And she said the additional information being shared by the state has allowed her department to go after high priority offenders.

“We go through and determine what we consider someone who would be a high threat level…Someone with a domestic violence history, someone who has a violent history, felony convictions, perhaps a mental illness,” Ziman said.

State police data show that since 2015, 485 Aurora residents have had their FOID card revoked. Only about 20% of them have been forced to account for their guns.

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Failure to go after revoked gun permits

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What happened in the Aurora case

The shooter had his gun permit revoked about a month after he purchased a handgun, but he was allowed to hold onto his FOID card and the illegal gun for five more years, until he used it in the Pratt shooting.

What we knew a year ago

The failure to go after the Aurora shooter’s gun was typical of a broken system that allows the vast majority of revoked FOID card holders to keep their guns and their permits. Illinois State Police said they revoked more than 10,000 gun permits in 2018, but about two-thirds of the time those revocations did not result in any action besides sending a letter to the gun owner that went unanswered.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart called the shooting in Aurora “the nightmare that we have talked about for years.” Dart had long been sounding the alarm about the state’s “outrageously insane” loophole that allowed thousands of guns and permits to go unaccounted for.

What’s changed since then

FOID enforcement has increased in the year since the shooting in Aurora. State Police Director Brendan Kelly said they’ve conducted more than 200 FOID enforcement actions since May. That stepped up enforcement, combined with the better information sharing with local agencies, has contributed to a 55% increase in the number of firearm disposition records turned over from 2018 to 2019. Disposition records are how the state tracks guns in the possession of revoked FOID card holders.

But even with that increase, state police records show that for almost 75% of FOID cards that have been revoked since 2015, no disposition record has been turned in. That means potentially tens of thousands of illegal guns are still unaccounted for.

Dart and Kelly agree the problem is resources. They said neither state nor local police have the money and manpower to fully attack the problem.

The Fix the FOID Act that failed to pass the legislature last year would have created a FOID enforcement task force within the state police and funded it by increasing the cost of a FOID card from $1 per year to $4 per year.

Gun rights advocates successfully pushed back against that increase. Pearson, with the Illinois Rifle Association, said the increase, combined with the proposed fingerprinting requirement, would be an illegal financial burden on Illinois gun owners.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Dart said in response to Pearson’s concerns about cost.

“That [three] dollar difference is going to be something that’s going to fund these teams to make sure that we don’t hear about these tragedies again,” Dart said. “This is what we need to do. We need to do it and we need to do it now.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.