Illinois Shooter Is Latest Law Enforcement Miss to Commit Mass Murder

Convicted violent felon passed flawed background check to buy gun

AURORA, ILLINOIS - Crime scene tape surrounds the Shetland Business Park / Getty Images

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The man who allegedly murdered five people and wounded five police officers at an office park in Aurora, Ill., on Friday is the latest mass killer to obtain firearms due to failures in enforcing current gun laws, records show.

The alleged shooter, who spent several years in prison for a violent domestic assault in the 1990s, was able to obtain an Illinois Firearms Owners Identification (FOID) card in January 2014 and purchase the firearm he used to commit mass murder. Though he was prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms under both federal and state law, the shooter was able to obtain the FOID card and buy his gun because the background checks done during both transactions failed to uncover the disqualifying felony conviction.

"Some disgruntled person walked in and had access to a firearm that he shouldn't have had access to," Aurora police chief Kristen Ziman said on Saturday, according to the Chicago Tribune. "I don't want to make it political. This is a human issue. Lives were lost."

In Illinois, the state police are responsible for conducting the background checks associated with both obtaining FOID cards and purchasing all firearms. While the FBI, which runs the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), conducts background checks on firearms purchases in most states, 13 states, including Illinois, actually conduct those checks themselves. While the Illinois State Police should have access to the same databases of disqualifying criminal and mental health records and run the same check the FBI does during gun purchases, it remains unclear if they actually followed the proper procedures and checked all of the relevant databases.

"We're trying to figure out how that happened," Lt. Joseph Hutchins, a spokesman for the Illinois State Police, told the Wall Street Journal on Monday when asked about the agency's mishandling of the background checks.

The Illinois State Police did not immediately respond to request for comment from the Washington Free Beacon on how they conducted the background checks in question and why they repeatedly failed to uncover the shooter's disqualifying criminal history. The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for information on whether the shooter's criminal history was included in NICS.

It was only after the shooter applied for a concealed-carry permit in March 2014 that the state police finally uncovered the shooter's violent criminal history. They subsequently denied his application, revoked his FOID card, and sent him a letter telling him he must surrender any firearms in his possession to the local police department in Aurora. However, it appears neither the state police nor the Aurora Police Department ever followed up on the letter to ensure it was complied with and the shooter simply ignored it.

The alleged Aurora shooter is only the latest mass killer to obtain his firearms despite a history of disqualifying criminal activity. In 2007, a man with a record of severe mental illness that prohibited him from owning firearms murdered 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech after passing a background check to buy the guns he used because Virginia did not submit his mental health records to federal authorities. The man who murdered nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church during a prayer meeting in 2015 was facing drug charges that prohibited him from legally purchasing a firearm. But he was able to do so after the FBI contacted the wrong court for his records and failed to examine one of the databases the agency maintains, which included a record of the disqualifying incident. The Air Force veteran who murdered 26 people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., in 2017 was able to pass a background check to purchase a firearm because the Air Force did not submit his disqualifying criminal records from his time in the service to the FBI.

A report from the Washington Free Beacon in the aftermath of Sutherland Springs found military law enforcement authorities had not shared information with federal databases like NICS for decades despite complaints from some investigators. A final Defense Department report on the mass murder found incompetence was largely to blame for the lack of record sharing, which contributed to the killing of 26 people.

The massacre in Sutherland Springs led to increased interest in reforming the background check system through the Fix NICS Act. That congressional legislation was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by President Trump as part of an omnibus package in early 2018. The act sought to improve the reporting of disqualifying criminal and mental health records to NICS by providing more funding and incentives to both the military and states.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry's trade group, said Illinois has been lackluster at improving its efforts to submit records to NICS.

"Since 1995, Illinois has received nearly $23 million to help improve its background check system," the NSSF told the Free Beacon in a statement. "Despite the millions of federal dollars that have been poured into Illinois, more remains to be done to ensure prohibiting records are being entered into the FBI’s NICS databases."

The group said Illinois ranked just 34th in submitting required records to NICS. It also said about half of recent arrests in the state did not have their full records reported to NICS. Furthermore, the group found that while a state database listed 89,726 active protective orders in 2016, the state only reported 356 to NICS that year and only 1,060 between the years 2008 and 2017.

"More must be done to ensure the relevant prohibiting records are available for background checks nationwide," the trade group said.

NSSF called for a full investigation into the Illinois State Police’s handling of the Aurora shooter’s failed background checks.

"The murders in Aurora, Illinois, reveal the inability or unwillingness of many in authority to ensure that our existing laws are working," Larry Keane, NSSF's general council, told the Free Beacon in a statement. "The convicted felon who murdered five at his workplace last week should never have had a gun. We need to know why that happened so it can be fixed so it never happens again."

Keane said the key to preventing future attacks like the one in Aurora is effective enforcement of laws already on the books at the federal and state level.

"We need political leaders who will assume responsibility for ensuring law enforcement agencies have the resources and authority to carry out their responsibilities," he said. "Those agencies must ensure they are doing what the law was intended to do. That process, accomplished out of the public spotlight, is a whole lot harder than holding press conferences and passing new laws. Successful implementation of laws and continuing oversight does not make news. Lax, inadequate, misfocused or neglected enforcement does make news in the form of tragic incidents."

Stephen Gutowski   Email Stephen | Full Bio | RSS
Stephen Gutowski is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. He founded his own site as a junior in college and has been writing about news and politics since that time. He spent 4 years with the Media Research Center and was most recently with the Capitol City Project. His email address is Gutowski@FreeBeacon.com. His twitter handle is @StephenGutowski.

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