In March of 2017, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office tried to prevent a man previously arrested for criminal sexual abuse and domestic battery from getting a state-issued license to legally carry a gun. The man received the license, according to the sheriff’s office.
That same month, the sheriff’s office tried to stop another man from getting his concealed carry license. It objected because the man had previously been arrested for criminal sexual abuse and violating an order of protection. He too got the license.
In May of 2017, the sheriff’s office tried to stop a documented gang member who had been arrested for robbery from legally carrying a gun. Once again, the man ultimately got the license.
This isn’t unusual. Last year, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office said it objected to 1,130 applications for concealed carry licenses, mostly filed by residents in suburban Chicago. Most of those objections were for domestic violence or gun arrests. Despite the objections, a state review board ruled 90 percent of those people eligible to legally carry a gun, according to the sheriff’s office.
This system of object-and-review started when Illinois lawmakers were forced to hastily craft a concealed carry law after a federal court threw out the state’s concealed carry ban in 2012. What they came up with is unlike any other system in the country. It’s meant to provide concealed carry licenses expediently to those who qualify, while keeping licenses from potentially dangerous people. But both Chicago-area police and residents said the law is doing neither of those things.
State officials, who are the only ones who have access to comprehensive concealed carry objection information, have refused to make almost any of it available — and the monthly data they send to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office is misleading.
These mounting questions and concerns over the state’s concealed carry law come as the nation once again debates how to effectively regulate firearms following a deadly mass shooting at a Florida school last month. Lawmakers have questioned how law enforcement officials could have reacted better when the suspected shooter, Nikolas Cruz, raised numerous red flags.
How the system works
When someone applies for a concealed carry license, law enforcement agencies like the Chicago Police Department or Cook County Sheriff’s Office can object to the application “based upon a reasonable suspicion that the applicant is a danger to himself or herself or others, or a threat to public safety.” The governor-appointed Illinois Concealed Carry Licensing Review Board considers the objections and decides whether or not the applicant should be able to legally carry a gun. No other state allows law enforcement to object to concealed carry licenses without giving them final say.
The objection system is utilized by some law enforcement agencies far more than others. In 2016, the Chicago Police Department and Cook County Sheriff’s Office accounted for 90 percent of all objections the board reported reviewing, according to data obtained from Illinois State Police through an open records request. State police later refused to provided 2017 data.
CPD: ‘More guns on the streets’
Last year, the Chicago Police Department filed 801 objections, but at least 68 percent of those were thrown out by the board, according to CPD data.
“The system, whereby a panel can overturn police objections, needlessly and recklessly puts more guns on the streets of Chicago,” said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
Board spokesman Matthew Boerwinkle justified the board’s decisions by saying it uses a “higher standard” than local police to decide whether or not somebody should be allowed a concealed carry license. Thus, he said, it is “predictable that many law enforcement objections are ultimately overruled by the board.”
Cara Smith, the chief policy officer for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, said the sheriff’s office is frustrated.
“We certainly have examples of people we felt very strongly they shouldn’t have an application,” Smith said. “They have a history of domestic violence, they have a history of orders of protection. And yet, they are receiving a license. Those are people we are concerned about.”
Smith said the sheriff’s office pays two full-time employees to review and file objections to concealed carry applications. She said that’s a lot of time and money for just a 10 percent success rate.
“I think that we are using law enforcement resources on this process that are not being used out on the streets to address violence,” Smith said.
But not all law enforcement agencies share these frustrations. Oak Brook Police Chief James Kruger, who also heads the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said the general view of his members is that “at least at a suburban level, it’s working fairly well.” Valinda Rowe with IllinoisCarry and Richard Pearson with the Illinois State Rifle Association have both suggested that Chicago-area law enforcement, and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in particular, frequently file spurious objections.
Cara Smith said that an objection from the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t necessarily mean they are convinced the application should be rejected: just that it needs further review. However, Smith noted that the Sheriff’s Office only objected to about 9 percent of all the applications it checked in 2017.
‘Hundreds and hundreds’ face long waits
Illinois’ system was designed to balance the constitutionally guaranteed rights of gun owners with the concerns of law enforcement. Yet, even as Chicago-area police say it's too easy for potentially dangerous people to obtain concealed carry licenses, some residents with no criminal record said they struggle to obtain them.
Eric Gatewood, an investigator for a legal firm who serves documents like eviction papers, court summons, and divorce notices across Chicago’s South Side, said he applied for his concealed carry license in January of 2016.
“Neighborhoods that are high crime areas, infested with gangs, drugs, and guns,” Gatewood said. “I just don’t want to be a victim.”
Gatewood, 51, figured his license would arrive quickly. About a month after applying, he got a letter that said a law enforcement agency had objected to his application, and it was under review. So he waited.
“For 13 months, I am going to the mailbox,” Gatewood said. “When the mail comes, I am thinking, ‘It's in there today,’ and it’s not.”
WBEZ spoke with other people who waited more than two years to find out whether their application had passed the board.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of people that have waited over a year,” said Valinda Rowe, spokesperson for IllinoisCarry.
Board: ‘Significant progress’ being made
The Illinois Concealed Carry Licensing Review Board refuses to release even basic data to WBEZ. (The board did release some 2016 numbers; it later claimed it did so in error).
In monthly reports to the governor’s office, the board reported that it reviewed 6,131 objections last year and seemingly overruled the recommendations of law enforcement 82 percent of the time. But Boerwinkle, the board spokesman, says that may be high. He said an unidentified number of those objections were reviewed “multiple times,” though he couldn’t provide any clarity. The reports do not mention that some objections could be counted more than once.
In response to a WBEZ inquiry about those potentially misleading reports, Rauner spokeswoman Rachel Bold said in a statement the reports are “clearly not fully reflective of the work the [board] is doing to review applicants.”
“The report should include those numbers that show how many applications are pending additional law enforcement information, how many are pending appeal from applicants and how many were deemed eligible,” the statement read. “We are willing to work with the [board] to address those flaws.
When asked why it can take people like Gatewood more than a year to their license, Boerwinkle acknowledged the process is often slow. He added that “significant progress has been made” in recent months and contends that it currently makes final decisions on the majority of applications “within one or two months of receipt of the application.”
Changing Illinois’ concealed carry system would require new legislation. Several pieces of gun legislation are currently being debated in Springfield, following the Feb. 14 massacre at a Florida high school, but any changes to Illinois’ concealed carry laws would likely be divisive.
In many states, if a concealed carry applicant meets a series of requirements, their license is granted. Other states, like Maryland and Massachusetts, give police full discretionary authority to decide whether someone should receive a concealed carry license. But gun-friendly legislators outside Chicago are unlikely to accept those kinds of restrictions. And with gun violence a constant physical — and political — threat in Chicago, city legislators are equally unlikely to approve a system that gets rid of law enforcement’s ability to object.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided not to hear a case brought against Illinois’ concealed carry system.
State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago), who helped negotiate Illinois’ concealed carry law and is currently running for Illinois attorney general, defended the legislation’s goals of balancing the interests of gun control and gun rights. But he admitted the bill isn’t perfect.
“We were — pardon the pun — negotiating this under the gun,” Raoul said. “And we had to do that in the context of a legislature with a diversity of views.”
When presented with the high rate at which the board issued a license despite objections by local police and the long wait times some applicants have suffered, Raoul said he was open to reconsidering the law.
“Reviewing things is always smart,” Raoul said. “I think if we got everything perfectly right in the legislature the first time, there would probably be no need for a legislature by now.”