Illinois Gun-Info Debate Grows, Legislation Stalls
A plan to prevent releasing the names of those authorized to have guns in Illinois has stalled despite gun owners' burgeoning concern over privacy and safety, prompted by the state attorney general's opinion that the information is public record following an Associated Press request.
Gun advocates called for Attorney General Lisa Madigan to reverse her decree or for lawmakers to move swiftly to overturn it, and Republicans launched a petition drive to bolster the movement. Anti-violence groups countered that releasing the information is important to keep government accountable.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee on civil law voted 5-5 Wednesday to halt a bill from advancing that would prohibit state police from making public the names of the 1.3 million holders of Firearm Owners identification cards. The measure's sponsor, Republican Rep. Ron Stephens of Greenville, says he will continue pushing the ban.
Madigan's office ruled Monday night, in response to AP's public records request, that the list of FOID cardholders is public record and must be disclosed. Permit holders' addresses and telephone numbers would remain private.
State police officials, who claimed Illinois law bars the disclosure as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, said they will challenge the ruling in court.
Madigan's decree refuted the police assertions about privacy and said officials had not proven that making the records public would jeopardize anyone's safety. The Illinois State Rifle Association disagreed. Director Richard Pearson said "there is no legitimate reason for anyone to have access to the information."
"The safety of real people is at stake here," Pearson said in a statement. "Once this information is released, it will be distributed to street gangs and gun-control groups who will use the data to target gun owners for crime and harassment."
Federal law prohibits felons from possessing guns and Mark Walsh, campaign director for the Illinois Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said there's more behind the issue than just publicizing names.
"Having those records in the public arena is also helpful in making sure that local law enforcement and the state police are following up with those people who have FOID cards who should be prohibited purchasers," Walsh said.
That's been the effect elsewhere around the country, particularly with statewide data about licenses issued to people who want to carry concealed weapons, which is allowed in most states but not Illinois. Among some examples:
- An investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel published in 2007 found 1,400 people who were given concealed-carry licenses in the first half of 2006 had earlier pleaded guilty or no contest to felonies but qualified for guns because of a loophole in the law.
-In Memphis, Tenn., The Commercial Appeal found at least 70 people in the Memphis area who had concealed-carry permits despite violent histories including robbery, assault and domestic violence. A firestorm erupted after the newspaper posted an online database in 2008 of names of all concealed-carry permit holders in Tennessee. Legislatures in Florida and Tennessee have since voted to make information on permit holders private.
-The Indianapolis Star found hundreds of people convicted of felonies or other "questionable" cases in which people were subsequently granted concealed-carry permits, often over protests from local law enforcement officials and in some instances where it appeared the state police had a legal obligation to deny them.
The Illinois Republican Party launched a petition drive Wednesday to support legislation such as Stephens' to prohibit disclosure of the information. Stephens said he will have another chance before the House committee with his bill. A Senate version has yet to get a hearing.
Democratic Rep. Mike Zalewski of Chicago was among those urging Stephens to retool his legislation, with some suggesting he consider records aside from just the FOID cards. But Zalewski doesn't buy the arguments that disclosure would jeopardize gun owners if no addresses are released.
"The random thug that wants to break into homes, I don't think that person has the wherewithal to match names, go through all those processes they'd have to go through to commit a crime like that," Zalewski said. "If it's the names alone, I side with the attorney general.