Kurt Erickson - Springfield Bureau Chief
SPRINGFIELD - An untold number of Illinois gun owners may be unwittingly breaking state law because of a paperwork backlog at the Illinois State Police. State officials acknowledged Friday that a rush of applications and a decline in staffing has resulted in a significant delay in processing Firearm Owner Identification cards. That means any gun owner whose new card or renewed card hasn't yet arrived in the mail is committing a felony. “They are technically in violation at that point,” agreed state police spokesman Lincoln Hampton. While Hampton said it would be possible for police to charge gun owners for not having FOID cards - even though it's the state's fault - he stressed that law enforcement officials always have the discretion to determine whether a citation is warranted. “Just like when you are speeding, it's one of those situations that you're in violation (of the law.) But, the officer has the right to decide exactly what action he's going to take at that point,” Hampton said. The FOID card, which costs $5, was created in 1968 as a way to identify people who are eligible to possess and acquire firearms and ammunition. About 1.2 million people possess FOID cards, which are good for five years. It was not clear Friday how many gun owners might be affected by the backlog. But some local gun shops are fielding inquiries from frustrated customers who are trying to find out why they haven't received their cards. “We're getting phone calls every day,” said Brad Britton, an employee at Smiley's Sport Shop in Bloomington. “It gets old after a while.” Lawmakers, too, are hearing from angry hunters. “There's just no good answer to it,” said state Rep. Dan Reitz, who received phone calls from two anxious gun owners over the Christ-mas break. “If we're going to require people to have a FOID card, I think it's incumbent upon us to get those out in a timely manner.” Reitz, a Steeleville Demo-crat who co-chairs the Illinois Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus, said police officials told him they are 50 days behind on processing FOID cards. Usually, processing takes 30 days. “If it's out of the ordinary we ought to address that,” said Reitz, who intends to call on the state police to take care of the problem when lawmakers return to action in Springfield on Wednesday. The Illinois State Police, which administers the program, has seen staff cuts in recent years because of the state's budget woes. The most recent cuts came when contract workers hired to process FOID cards were let go, Reitz said. In all, the agency's Firearms Services Bureau processes about 210,000 applications each year. Hampton said December has traditionally been problematic for the agency. “The month of December is one of the biggest as far as people submitting FOID card applications, so therefore it's one of our busiest and that's pretty much why there is a delay at this point,” said Hampton. “Right now, they are just getting them out as quickly as they can,” said Hampton. Kurt Erickson can be reached at kurt.erickson @lee.net or (217) 782-1249.