CHICAGO – More than 1,000 requests for concealed carry gun permits are pouring in each day in the nation's last state to allow the practice, sparking concerns among Illinois law enforcement officials that they might fall behind on weeding out applicants with a history of violence.
The Cook County Sheriff's office says it already has identified about 120 applications it plans to contest since the online application process was opened to most state residents Jan. 5. Chicago Police Department officials, locked in a battle to control high-profile gang violence, say they, too, are worried about keeping up with the flood of applications, while downstate sheriff's departments said they might not have the capacity to meet the new law's vetting requirement in the time allowed.
Illinois State Police officials insist a full state review will assure that permits don't land in the hands of those who shouldn't have them. And with 90 days to do the job after the 30-day window closes for local law enforcement agencies to make their objections, the agency has far more time than its counterparts in some other states, including Pennsylvania, where law enforcement has 45 days to investigate, and Wisconsin, where the state has 21 days.
But local law enforcement officials say they were not given the resources for a task that was supposed to provide an extra safeguard: a 30-day window to ferret out applicants who might meet the state standards but have something in their backgrounds that could render their applications too risky to approve.
Unlike the State Police, which received millions of dollars to do the background checks, and unlike Wisconsin, where the state Justice Department also received additional funding, in Illinois, local law enforcement agencies were not given any more money.
That means, said Cara Smith, a top adviser to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, that many applications won't be adequately reviewed by the department. Or, she said, in a state where 400,000 applications are expected to be submitted the first year, there is a danger that the office won't even get a chance to so much as glance at some applications in the 30-day objection period.
"If this law was designed to find people who are otherwise qualified and have something in their background that deserves a closer look — it's not going to work," said Cara Smith, a top adviser overseeing the permits review for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
The need for such scrutiny already has become evident in a review of the applications that have come in. In examining 2,000 of the first 5,000 applications, the department has flagged more than 120 that it will recommend Dart object to. The allows objections for what it calls a "reasonable suspicion" that the applicants are dangerous even if their backgrounds would not automatically result in denials of their applications. Among those flagged by the Sheriff's Department are a gang leader who has been arrested – though never convicted – a dozen times on aggravated battery with a dangerous weapon and other charges, and a man who was arrested but not convicted of domestic battery and endangering the life of a child.
In Will County, southwest of Chicago, officials are concerned that incompatibility and security issues with law enforcement computer systems might slow the vetting process and prevent them from noticing potentially dangerous people.
"If somebody with local warrants in Winnebago County moves here, we have no way of checking that. And if somebody moved here six months ago and has not had any local contacts (with law enforcement), we won't have anything on them in our local database," said Ken Kaupas, deputy chief of the Will County Sheriff's Office.
State Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said that while more than 16,000 applicants have cleared the first hurdle in the application process, the detailed checks are just beginning. She said before anyone receives final approval, the agency will have examined as many as a dozen criminal databases.
"The process is thorough, and the background checks are complete," she said.
About 7,000 applications were received since mid-December, when firearms instructors and some others were allowed start applying. Then, on Jan. 5, the first day the process was opened to everyone else, more than 4,500 applications came in. Since then, Bond says, the agency has been receiving more than 1,000 applications per day.
In Cook County, Smith said "the numbers are so high" that to keep up, the 20-person unit assigned to investigate the applications would have to be tripled in size.
But state Rep. Brandon Phelps, a sponsor of the legislation, said 30 days is long enough for local law enforcement to submit objections to the state panel made up of former prosecutors, judges and others. He also says it isn't necessary to provide additional funds since local law enforcement isn't involved with issuing the permits.
Further, he and others said that because applicants have already passed background checks to obtain the state's Firearm Owners Identification cards, the state could find itself in court if the panel upholds scores of local objections.
"You can't start denying people if they haven't been arrested or convicted of anything," agreed Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association.
Brian Malte, director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said local law enforcement's role is crucial to public safety. He said the law would allow local law enforcement to object to people such as George Zimmerman, the Florida man who was acquitted last year in his trial for shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
In Illinois' Sangamon County, Undersheriff Jack Campbell said it's unclear how long it will take to investigate the applications, or whether there could be legal ramifications from taking more than 30 days, which is a distinct possibility.
"We are not going to rush it if that makes us late, we will deal with that," he said. "We will not allow applications to slip through the cracks."