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Audit: Gun program ‘limited’ in protecting safety

April 07, 2012 at 01:23 PM

The Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD — State oversight of gun ownership in Illinois is “limited” in its ability to safeguard the public because of poor follow-through, inadequate collection of mental health records and tardy action on permit applications by “overwhelmed” Illinois State Police officials, an audit reported Thursday. 

The state police program for issuing and monitoring Firearm Owners Identification cards falls woefully short in gathering court records on potentially mentally ill gun owners, confiscates only 30 percent of the FOID cards that police revoke, and doesn’t report critical information to federal authorities required by a criminal background database, the report found. 

Lawmakers ordered Auditor General William Holland’s assessment last spring after the uproar caused by an Associated Press public-records request for names of the state’s FOID-card holders. 

State police denied the AP inquiry, but the attorney general said the records should be released, prompting a successful Illinois State Rifle Association lawsuit and pushing legislators to ban disclosure but calling for a study to ensure there is proper gun-permit supervision. 

“Our audit concluded that the effectiveness of the FOID card program is limited in promoting and protecting the safety of the public,” Holland wrote. Deficiencies in mental health reporting alone, he said, “seriously undermine the effectiveness of the FOID program.”

1.3 million cards

The state police largely agreed with the findings and said they are making improvements. Spokeswoman Monique Bond pointed out FOID applications topped record levels during the period audited, 2008 to 2010 — about 300,000 a year. 

There are more 1.3 million Illinois FOID cards, which are required to buy guns or ammunition in the state. Cards are denied to those who are “intellectually disabled” or judged “mentally defective” as well as to felons, drug addicts, domestic violence offenders, and others with various troubles. 

Auditors found that from 2008 to 2010, state police revoked more than 20,000 FOID cards, but retrieved only about 30 percent of them. Some are surrendered to judges when holders are convicted of crimes, and beginning this year, state law requires they be returned to state police, Bond said. 

People holding revoked FOIDs can’t buy guns from licensed dealers — a separate, instant state police check shows whether a card is valid — but they can buy ammunition or even guns, if the firearms are sold by a private individual. Both transactions require a buyer just to show a FOID card.

Holland made no recommendation on that issue because the task of confiscation is so formidable.

“The Department of State Police is overwhelmed,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. 

The report indicated only three of the state’s 102 counties reported to the state police information on cardholders who have mental health conditions that could prohibit them from owning guns. Cook, Bureau and LaSalle counties delivered 121 reports in three years. 

Ineffective protection

And one-third of the reports that state police did receive were not reported to the FBI’s national criminal background database, which other states use in approving guns sales.

The state police are also not reporting all involuntary mental-health commitments to federal authorities as required because the Department of Human Services doesn’t identify whether people who check into private mental health facilities do so voluntarily or against their will. That agency said it is fixing that.

“The FOID program has been ineffective at protecting our state,” said Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat who is working on several pieces of legislation this spring, including stricter county-level mental health reporting.

A major problem is state police staffing. Not enough people answer phones — during one three-month period, 85 percent of calls went unanswered. From 2009 to 2011, the FOID bureau paid $527,000 in overtime. About one-third of FOID applications or renewals were not approved or denied within the required 30 days. 

“If you’re going to have a FOID card, you should make it work right. It should be properly staffed,” said Richard Pearson, president of the Illinois State Rifle Association. “Law-abiding citizens should not have wait and wait.”

Associated Press writer Shannon McFarland contributed to this report.

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