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Audit: Illinois FOID card system for buying guns and ammo is broken
Safety net to keep guns out of dangerous hands is full of bureaucratic loopholes and erroneous and incomplete data

Friday, May 04, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Rick Pearson

For more than four decades, Illinois' Firearm Owners Identification card has been viewed as a first line of defense for protecting the public by trying to keep guns out of the hands of the most dangerous in society.

But a first-ever state audit of the program has found the safety net weakened by bureaucratic loopholes and erroneous and incomplete data that could allow the seriously mental ill and others to keep or get a FOID card to buy firearms and ammunition.

"How are people going to explain away the fact that a horrific event occurred, and it turns out this person had diagnosed mental health issues and their card was not (taken away or) the information was never forwarded to the state police, so they never had the ability to take the card away?" asked Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

The audit doesn't list any instances where that's happened, and it's unclear whether any have occurred.

The problems in Illinois' reporting data compromises the FBI's national criminal background check database, which is used by other states for gun purchases, the audit found. "The safety of the general public as a whole is at risk," Auditor General William Holland said.

Details come as state lawmakers are now in the final scheduled month of spring session amid another push to legalize the carrying of concealed firearms. Illinois is the only state that prohibits so-called concealed carry for the general public.

FOID cards began in 1968, and last year more than 1.3 million Illinoisans held the card, a form of identification residents need to purchase firearms and ammunition. Nearly 880,000 FOID card applications were approved between 2008 and 2010, the report found, representing 97 percent of those who applied.

The FOID card requirement long has been controversial. Some gun rights advocates contend the unique Illinois system duplicates a required federal background check to purchase firearms from a licensed dealer. Gun control supporters argue the FOID card is a necessary first step for safety.

But the report found problems for those on either side of the gun issue. The audit showed faulty reporting allowed ineligible people to get or keep a FOID card, which pro- and anti-gun control advocates both decry. The audit also cited lengthy delays in processing card requests, with 85 percent of calls to get a status update going unanswered, which upsets gun rights supporters.

"This is a public safety solution that was sold to the public, that was foisted among gun owners. If this is what the state deems as necessary, they need to find the resources to adequately fund it," said Todd Vandermyde, a lobbyist for the Illinois State Rifle Association.

Among the most significant problems identified in the report was the failure of all but three of the state's 102 county circuit court clerks to report cases of people being found seriously mental ill to the Illinois State Police. Those people should be placed on an ineligibility list for FOID cards or should have them revoked.

By law, FOID cards should be revoked or not be issued to people found incompetent to stand trial, are a danger to themselves or others, lack the mental capacity to manage their own affairs, or have been found "not guilty by reason of insanity, mental disease or defect."

In 2010, only 121 court decisions finding serious mental illness were reported to the state police — all from Cook, Bureau and LaSalle counties.

Of those few court orders that were reported, only about half contained the necessary information required by the state police to add the ineligible names to the database. For the same reason, another 1-in-5 of the orders were never reported to the FBI to add to the national database.

The 103 cases forwarded to the state police by the Cook County Circuit Court are far short of all of the county's cases in which a judge determines someone to be seriously mentally ill.

Dart said he averages about 250 cases a year of housing people adjudicated as seriously mentally ill in the Cook County Jail, and those are only from criminal cases. Judges in the county's civil division also often make a determination of mental fitness that would add people to the list of those prohibited to have a FOID card.

The underreporting is the result of a legal loophole contained in the state law — and the reason why circuit court clerks in 99 of the state's other counties, including some of Illinois' largest, aren't forwarding names of ineligible FOID card holders to the state police.

Under the law, a judge "shall direct" the circuit clerk to forward the information to the state police. "Therefore," the audit stated, "if not directed to do so by the court, the court clerk is not going to report" the names to the state police.

"What is the purpose and why do we even have a FOID card section?" asked Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, a former assistant Cook County prosecutor.


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