Democrats in the Illinois House are advancing a new measure that would require both mandatory fingerprinting before getting a firearm owners identification card and universal background checks before gun purchases.
The proposal cleared a House panel on Thursday just two days after bill sponsor State Rep. Kathleen Willis (D-Addison) filed an amendment including the new language and garnered more than three dozen co-sponsors, including House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside).
Willis said she wouldn’t compromise on mandating fingerprints or universal background checks before all gun sales — except for those between immediate family members.
“We have to have a better way to do background checks and fingerprints are the best way to do that,” Willis said. “Same thing with universal background checks. If we don't do that, there's a loophole in the law, and people that have shady backgrounds will continue to do personal sales and not go through gun dealers.”
The new proposal combines more progressive elements backed by gun control groups with ideas introduced by the Illinois State Police carried in a separate piece of proposed legislation. That bill is aimed at reducing Illinois’ massive backlog of FOID and concealed carry license applications, which grew so large during the COVID-19 pandemic, a gun rights group filed suit against Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration over it in federal court last month.
State Police Director Brendan Kelly last week appeared at a news conference to tout that proposal, which is sponsored by moderate Democrats and has even picked up a few Republican supporters.
The ISP’s proposal would combine the FOID card and concealed carry license and make it digital. It would also automatically renew FOID cards for those obtaining a concealed carry permit or voluntarily submitting their fingerprints and create an online portal of “prohibited persons” to help law enforcement identify those whose FOID cards have been revoked.
But gun control groups like Gun Violence Prevention PAC Illinois balked at that proposal, characterizing it as a gun lobby-backed bill, though pro-gun groups were merely “neutral” on the bill.
Willis, who had already introduced legislation backed by GPAC, said she combined ideas from the ISP bill with her proposal like combining FOID cards and concealed carry licenses and making them digital, and claimed the agency “totally backs our bill also.”
An ISP spokeswoman on Thursday said Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration “has made clear on multiple occasions the support for universal background checks,” but did not address mandatory fingerprinting.
While testifying during the bill’s hearing Thursday, Kelly reiterated that position on universal background checks, but said the agency had to see legislative fixes that would substantially address the FOID card backlog.
Kelly did not commit to mandatory fingerprints, but did say there was room for other state agencies to share information with the ISP for Illinoisans who already have fingerprints on file with the state because they’ve been licensed as a teacher or nurse or have been fingerprinted for work as a police officer.
“We recognize there’s a wide variety of opinions about the appropriate access to fingerprints of people that are exercising their constitutional rights,” Kelly said.
This is Willis’ second push for this legislation, first proposed in 2019 after a mass shooting in Aurora that left six dead, including shooter Gary Martin.
Five years prior, Martin lied on his FOID card application, leaving off a 1995 aggravated assault conviction in Mississippi. He was granted his FOID card in early 2014, and then cleared a background check when he went to buy a gun. But when he voluntarily submitted fingerprints to ISP in order to speed up processing of his concealed carry license, those fingerprints connected Martin to his felony conviction, and his application was denied.
His FOID card was subsequently revoked, but Martin never surrendered his handgun — the same gun he used to kill five coworkers and wound several police officers at Aurora’s Henry Pratt Company factory on Feb. 15, 2019.
State Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago), who is sponsoring the more stringent FOID card bill in the Senate, said last week that Martin’s case actually proves fingerprinting is effective at catching those who should not have FOID cards — but said law enforcement lacked the resources to follow through on making sure Martin surrendered his gun.
Villivalam contends fingerprinting wouldn’t cause more red tape, but “break through bureaucracy.”
“There’s a reason the Illinois State Police currently offers fingerprinting as a way to expedite your concealed carry license,” Villivalam said.
He also noted ISP backed the previous attempt at mandatory fingerprinting in 2019. But the legislation the ISP touted last week only includes voluntary fingerprinting, and is more focused on eliminating the agency’s FOID and concealed carry license application backlog.
State Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria), who is sponsoring the ISP legislation, declined to opine on Willis’ new bill this week before reviewing it, but last week said voluntary fingerprinting would give the ISP the freedom to “really focus on what they should be focusing on: who should not have a gun.”
“What we’re trying to do, very simply, is leave the good people alone and stop this backlog and all the hoops people need to jump through and let’s focus our resources on what we need to focus on,” Koehler said. “We don’t need more lawsuits on this. We need to have an effective system.”
State Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) said Thursday he was intentionally holding his version of the ISP bill pending negotiations with Willis and other stakeholders. Willis said she was willing to cut her proposed FOID card fee and bring her five-year renewal timeline back up to once per decade.
Dave Sullivan, who lobbies on behalf of the Illinois State Rifle Association, told lawmakers during Thursday’s hearing that mandatory fingerprinting would be very unlikely to catch those who perpetrate the most gun violence, because they’re unlikely to have FOID cards or concealed carry licenses in the first place.
“In 2020, there were 769 homicides via gun violence in Chicago…[and] over 4,000 gun-related shooting injuries in Chicago,” Sullivan said. “How will fingerprints affect that issue? How do we solve the problems of gun violence by asking people that aren't going to have a FOID card, aren't going to follow law, commit to that?”
Willis’ bill passed out of committee Thursday with Democratic votes, except for freshman State Rep. Dave Vella (D-Rockford). State Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) said he was willing to vote the bill out of committee, but was unsure about how he’d vote when it reached the House floor.
“I have genuine concerns about overhauling this system in the midst of a pandemic,” Zalewski said. “I think we run the very real risk of people giving up on the system and not doing what we ask them to do.”
Universal background checks on private sales
The proposals backed by GPAC also include mandatory universal background checks for private gun sales or transfers unless it’s between immediate family members. Willis described those private sales as a “loophole,” and said her legislation would make it mandatory to go to a federal firearms licensed dealer who can perform a universal background check in order to make a private sale.
But Todd Vandermyde of the Federal Firearms Licensees of Illinois pointed out there are no such gun dealers in the city of Chicago due to local ordinances, and compared that situation with disenfranchising of Black voters.
“What would it be like if we said we're going to have early voting in the state but there was not a single polling place inside the city limits of Chicago, and all those voters had to go outside to Cook County or elsewhere to vote?” Vandermyde asked. “We wouldn't accept it. This is a Jim Crow law.”
House Judiciary - Criminal committee chair State Rep. Justin Slaughter (D-Chicago), who is Black, chided Vandermyde for his comparison.
“What we’re not going to do is associate this with Jim Crow laws,” Slaughter said.
Vandermyde said the universal background check mandate would put Chicagoans “in legal jeopardy” if they had to use public transportation to get to a gun dealer outside of the city, as firearms are not allowed on buses and trains.
“You tell me that people that are in certain neighborhoods of the city of Chicago, are going to pack up a firearm, a long gun, a shotgun and ride the CTA to get to someplace out in the suburbs?” Vandermyde said.
Willis noted that while there are no gun shops in Chicago, there are many in the surrounding areas, and repeated that universal background checks were an essential part of her legislation.