Some law enforcement officials in Cook County, Ill. – home of Chicago, America's reigning murder capital – believe dangerous and mentally unstable people may soon acquire legal permission to carry guns in public.
Illinois is the last of the 50 states to extend concealed carry rights to gun owners and on Sunday residents can begin applying for permits online.
After an application is submitted, local law enforcement agencies have 30 days to flag it for further review by the seven-member Concealed Carry Licensing Review Board. Permit decisions must be made within 90 days.
Ahead of the influx of applications, leaders of the Cook County Sheriff's Office says they are powerless to thoroughly vet applicants and flag individuals who may be dangerous.
The Illinois law allowing concealed carry has several safeguards. Applicants must certify they were not convicted of a felony or of certain misdemeanors in the past five years, such as threatening violence or driving more than twice under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Additionally, Illinois State Police must automatically flag applicants arrested five times in the past seven years, or three times for gang-related offenses.
Applicants must also surrender access to their mental health records, possess a valid Firearm Owner Identification (FOID) card – required for gun ownership in Illinois – and complete firearms training.
Despite those requirements, Cara Smith, executive director of jails and former policy chief at the Cook County Sheriff's Office, says the 7,000-member force cannot effectively screen the applicant pool, largely because Illinois State Police denied them authorization to use the state's LEADS database.
LEADS, Smith explains, is the "mothership of criminal history information" in Illinois.
Local law enforcement can flag any applicant for further review, even if they have not received a disqualifying conviction. Smith and her boss, Sheriff Tom Dart, believe doing so may weed out dangerous needles in the haystack of applicants.
Smith says her office is particularly interested in objecting to applicants who faced domestic violence, gun or gang-related charges that did not yield disqualifying convictions.
Illinois State Police rebuffed a request from the Cook County Sheriff's Office to automatically flag individuals meeting this criteria.
Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Police, says the request was denied because those categories weren't specified in the law.
"The statute does not provide nor will the [Illinois State Police] have a mechanism for entering 'blanket objections,'" Bond says. "Therefore, they will need to file such objections individually through the law enforcement objection process."
Smith also says her department's lack of access of mental health concerns reported to state agencies may also allow a few loose cannons to slip through, despite the mental health waiver applicants agree to.
The licensing review board, which reviews flagged applications, is charged with denying permits for applicants it deems a threat to themselves or public safety.
Illinois Carry spokeswoman Valinda Rowe brushes off the concerns of the Cook County Sheriff's Office as alarmist hogwash that is "entirely without basis."
Rowe points to the law's safeguards, including the requirement in Illinois that gun owners have a valid FOID card. If a cardholder is charged with domestic violence, she says, that card is revoked until charges are resolved.
Rowe says the sheriff's office would like access to the LEADS database to conduct fishing expeditions that would enable them to object to as many applicants as possible.
"The Cook County Sheriff's Office wants to object to everyone and anyone they can because they oppose concealed carry," Rowe says. "They are trying to undermine the law that was passed."
Rowe says she opposes disqualifying citizens charged – but not convicted – of crimes.
"That's just ridiculous," she says. "If they are determined to be not guilty, why would you object to someone following their constitutional rights?"