Last week, when an Illinois man killed five of his co-workers and injured several police officers, he did so with an illegal firearm. The shooter purchased the gun after lying on his background check about a past felony for aggravated assault. Like many other mass shootings, the criminal was able to carry out an act of violence not because of a lack of gun laws, but because of a bureaucratic failure to enforce the existing ones.
The Aurora shooter answered “No” to the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” He was then approved for his Firearm Owner’s Identification Card (FOID), which is required before purchasing a firearm or ammunition in Illinois. He then passed another background check before purchasing the .40-caliber Smith & Wesson he used on his killing rampage last week in Aurora. Both background checks failed to flag his felony conviction and prison sentence from the mid-1990s in Mississippi. Police reports say he hit a former girlfriend with a baseball bat and stabbed her with a knife.
It wasn’t until Gary Martin later applied for a concealed carry permit that his felony was flagged and his FOID card revoked. He was sent a letter with orders to surrender his firearm but never did so, and it’s unclear if any police agency ever followed up. The Illinois State Police has yet to explain how their database missed his past convictions, or whether any measures were taken to seize his firearm after his FOID card was revoked. The Chicago Tribune reports there is no record of law enforcement asking the court for permission to search for Martin’s gun.
In a statement on Monday, Aurora police Chief Kristen Ziman said a criminal background check would not necessarily detect a 20-year-old conviction. But The Chicago Tribune and news outlets were easily able to find Martin’s aggravated assault in public records.
All licensed gun retailers are required to run a background check through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) any time they sell a firearm to an individual. But a background check system is only as effective as its database. The federal government cannot force states to submit prohibited information, like criminal and mental health records, to NICS. Unfortunately, far too many states fail to participate, and Illinois ranks 34th of states submitting records to NICS.
In 2011, an audit of Illinois’ FOID card program found “significant deficiencies in the reporting of individuals with potentially disqualifying mental health conditions” to state police. At the time of the audit, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart asked, “How are people going to explain away the fact that a horrific event occurred, and it turns out this person had diagnosed mental health issues and their card was not (taken away or) the information was never forwarded to the state police, so they never had the ability to take the card away?” Nine years later, this exact scenario has played out too many times.
Since the 2011 audit, Illinois has received millions of dollars in grants specifically for fixing problems with their database and automating the process of submitting disqualifying records to the NICS database. In 2018, Congress passed the Fix NICS Act, which required all federal agencies to submit any of their prohibitory records, and provided funding and resources for states to do the same (although the federal government still cannot compel states to do this).
This leaves many unanswered questions as to why states like Illinois continue to allow criminals to skirt gun laws already on the books. Is their failure to run background checks, or to submit records to the NICS, because of a lack of funding? A lack of technology? Are they continually updating their submitted records, or are they submitted in a one-time dump to the federal government? In the case of the Aurora shooting, was it Mississippi’s failure to submit the information of the shooter’s felony, or was it Illinois’ failure to find it?
The Charleston church shooting, the Sutherland Springs church shooting, and now the Aurora shooting are just three of the many recent mass shootings that could have been prevented had the background check system been properly enforced. In each of these tragedies, the shooters obtained firearms illegally. They were criminals before they even claimed a victim. These criminals are evidence that gun control measures do nothing to address the reality that criminals will never obey the law, but expose bureaucratic failures to enforce it.