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Illinois' gun laws failed to stop the Highland Park shooter from getting weapons

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Here in the U.S., relatively strong gun control laws in Illinois did not stop the legal gun purchases made by a 21-year-old charged in a July 4 shooting. The suspect in the killing of seven people had previously been flagged by police. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The 21-year-old charged with shooting more than 40 people at the Highland Park parade, killing seven of them, was on the radar of Highland Park police. In September of 2019, they responded to a call that Bobby Crimo was threatening to kill everybody in the home and had knives. While there, the police seized 16 knives, a dagger and a sword, but they say Crimo and his mother denied he threatened anyone, and Crimo was not arrested. Lake County Major Crime Task Force spokesman Christopher Covelli explains.

CHRISTOPHER COVELLI: Police can't make an arrest unless there is probable cause to make an arrest or somebody is willing to sign complaints regarding the arrest. Absent of those things, the police don't have power to detain somebody. But nonetheless, Highland Park Police did notify the Illinois State Police of that.

SCHAPER: That notification is called a clear and present danger report. It also indicated that Crimo admitted having a history of drug use and depression. But Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly says there wasn't enough evidence to substantiate the clear and present danger report.

BRENDAN KELLY: There was no probable cause to arrest. So upon review of the report at that time, the reviewing officer concluded that there was insufficient information for a clear and present determination.

SCHAPER: In addition, Crimo had not yet applied for Illinois' gun license, called a Firearm Owners ID - or FOID card - so there was no application to deny. But he did apply a few months later, and since he was still under 21, his father signed off on it. And Kelly says Illinois State Police had no reason not to approve it.

KELLY: So at the time of the FOID application approval for the individual in question, there was no new information to establish a clear and present danger - no arrests, no criminal records, no mental health prohibitors, no orders of protection and no other disqualifying prohibitors and no firearms restraints.

SCHAPER: Illinois also has a red flag law allowing family, concerned citizens or law enforcement to ask a judge to deny or revoke a FOID card and temporarily remove weapons. But Kelly says getting that restraining order requires an even higher legal threshold of evidence, and it appears no one ever petitioned for one against Crimo. So under Illinois' current gun laws, he says police really rely upon the cooperation of the family and others.

KELLY: This whole system, the whole process of firearms restraining orders, clear and present danger, of mental health prohibitors - it's so dependent upon the people that may be closest around the individual of concern, the person that may be posing a threat to themselves or the person that may be posing a threat to others.

SCHAPER: So the Fourth of July mass shooting has some Illinois lawmakers looking to strengthen the state's gun and red flag laws to try to keep those posing such a threat from falling through the cracks.

DENYSE WANG STONEBACK: Yes, there were, you know, missed opportunities to prevent this from happening in the first place.

SCHAPER: Suburban Democratic state Representative Denyse Wang Stoneback agrees that Crimo's family may have been able to prevent him from buying guns, but she also says local police can and should better utilize the state's existing red flag laws.

STONEBACK: You know, police need to issue firearms restraining orders, not just clear and present danger reports. And I would like to see police and law enforcement act more proactively to remove the ability to obtain a FOID from people like the Highland Park shooter.

SCHAPER: Stoneback and others are calling for a special session to take up stronger gun legislation, including a statewide ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, fingerprinting for FOID cards and having in-person background checks done at local police departments.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.