What is and isn’t allowed by Illinois’ gun laws

Assault rifles, including the infamous AR-15, may be purchased in the state – but not in Cook County or Chicago.

Law enforcement search after a mass shooting at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade.
Law enforcement search after a mass shooting at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
Law enforcement search after a mass shooting at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade.
Law enforcement search after a mass shooting at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

What is and isn’t allowed by Illinois’ gun laws

Assault rifles, including the infamous AR-15, may be purchased in the state – but not in Cook County or Chicago.

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Illinois has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. Buyers here are required to undergo a background check and get a permit in order to purchase firearms.

Despite those stringent measures, Illinois does allow the purchase of so-called assault rifles, including the infamous AR-15-style gun.

The high-powered assault rifle has been used in numerous high-profile mass shootings throughout the country. At the mass shooting on the Fourth of July in suburban Highland Park that killed seven people, officials said the gunman used a M&P15 semiautomatic rifle, which was purchased legally in the Chicago area.

Here’s a deeper look at the current state of gun policy here in Illinois.

The big picture

Illinois has the sixth strongest gun safety laws in the country and the ninth-lowest rate of gun ownership, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. But, the nonprofit advocacy group notes that “despite being a national leader in enacting gun violence prevention laws,” Illinois is “surrounded by states with much weaker laws” and “continues to experience a rate of gun violence that is “near the national average.”

The Illinois Constitution lays out the right of Illinois citizens “to keep and bear arms,” but according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Illinois courts have consistently found that right does not prevent the state or individual municipalities from imposing gun restrictions or regulations.

Highland Park has had an ordinance banning semi-automatic rifles, including AR-15s and AK-47s, since 2013. The ban was quickly challenged and made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, allowing a lower court ruling upholding the ban to stand.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a dissent at the time that Highland Park’s ban was “highly suspect because it broadly prohibits common semi-automatic firearms used for lawful purposes” adding that “the ordinance criminalizes modern sporting rifles (e.g., AR-style semi automatic rifles), which many Americans own for lawful purposes like self-defense, hunting, and target shooting.”

The ability to restrict gun possession has been narrowed by the federal courts, for example, in a 2010 decision, the Supreme Court found that a Chicago ban on handgun possession violated the Constitution.

And in another ruling last month, the Supreme Court expanded gun rights, saying Americans have a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense. The decision, which is likely to lead to more people being legally armed, came out as Congress and states debate gun-control legislation.

Restrictions on gun ownership

Unlike most states, Illinois requires a permit and a background check to purchase firearms. The permitting system bans certain people from owning guns in Illinois, including residents who have prior felony convictions, residents with current orders of protections against them and residents with a recent history of serious mental health issues.

The Firearm Owners Identification Card is issued by the Illinois State Police and must be renewed every 10 years — although the state has a well-documented history of failing to go after revoked or expired gun permits, or the illegal guns in their owners’ possession. The Illinois gun permit, referred to as a FOID card, is required for purchasing guns and ammunition, and also just for being in possession of a firearm.

The FOID law does not require any training before purchasing a gun, however Illinois residents who want a concealed carry license must meet FOID requirements and successfully complete 16 hours of firearms training, including classroom and range instruction, according to state police. Indeed, while some states, including neighboring Indiana, allow or will soon allow “permitless carry” for any adult, Illinois still requires strict permitting in order to carry a gun in public.

Illinois law also prohibits anyone younger than 21 from purchasing or possessing a firearm unless the young person is sponsored by an eligible adult. According to the National Rifle Association, Illinois bans possession of certain types of high-powered ammunition and rifle silencers.

What is permitted

Illinois recently moved to ban so-called ghost guns, becoming the first Midwestern state to outlaw the untraceable weapons, and the state has a law against owning or selling machine guns, defined as a gun that shoots more than one bullet per squeeze of the trigger. Beyond that, however, state law is mostly silent on the types of firearms Illinois residents can purchase, including so-called assault rifles that are often used in mass shootings. In fact, the Illinois gun permit law actually restricts municipalities from banning assault rifles.

Despite the language in the state statute, assault rifles like the AR-15 are banned in Cook County, Chicago and other Illinois cities, including Highland Park. The federal courts have ruled in favor of those bans.

The Associated Press and Chicago Sun-Times contributed to this report.

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