Gun control: Illinois law requiring background checks among 'most stringent'

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, in signing the 'common-sense' gun-control law extending background checks to private sales, says it 'will help our law enforcement crack down on crime.'

Seth Perlman/AP
Semi-automatic handguns are seen on display at Capitol City Arms Supply in Springfield, Ill., Jan. 16, 2013.

Private gun sales in Illinois now require background checks after Gov. Pat Quinn signed tough new legislation intended to close a federal loophole that prevented law enforcement from tracking who was buying guns on the street.

“Guns are a plague on too many of our communities.… This common-sense law will help our law enforcement crack down on crime and make our streets safe,” Governor Quinn, a Democrat, said in a statement released Sunday.

Under the new law, Illinois joins 17 other states and the District of Columbia in extending background checks to private sales.

But how these states carry out the checks differ. Some states, including Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, require the purchaser to obtain a permit before buying the gun from a private seller, a step that automatically forces a background check. Others, including Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, and North Carolina, require background checks, but only for handguns.

In some states, including Oregon and Nevada, background checks are voluntary.

Many states that do not require background checks on private sales place the burden on the seller, saying they are criminally liable if the guns they sell are used in a crime.

The new Illinois law is one of the “harshest and most stringent” in the nation, says Nicholas Johnson, a law professor at Fordham University who has researched firearms laws.

It requires private sellers to process transactions – whether online or in-person – through a licensed dealer or law enforcement agency so that the background check takes place before the sale. To do so, the seller must check if the purchaser has a Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) card, or if their card is valid, through a telephone system operated by the Illinois State Police, which requires applicants to pass criminal and mental health screenings.

Previously, background checks of private sales in Illinois were only required at gun shows.

Quinn also announced that Illinois is joining seven other states and the District of Columbia in requiring gun owners to alert law enforcement within 72 hours of their guns being lost or stolen. That law takes effect immediately. The law requiring background checks will take effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Professor Johnson says data is inconclusive regarding whether background check requirements actually deter violence. He added that criminals often steal guns, or obtain them through the black market, rather than purchase them legally.

Where the Illinois law, among others, may be most effective is in slowing gun trafficking between states. Buyers who live in states with strict gun control laws often can cross the state line and buy guns in a neighboring state with fewer restrictions. With Illinois law now requiring background checks even in the private realm, it reinforces gun control laws in neighboring states.

“States can be fairly effective because, even under federal law, it is illegal to have private sales between individuals of different states. So the viability of enforcing [the federal law] state-by-state is not implausible,” he says.  

Background checks for private gun sales became a political issue following the 1999 killings of 14 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The two shooters, who also died, obtained their weaponry through friends at a gun show that did not require background checks.

A US House bill that year that would have mandated such checks failed to pass amid pressure from gun rights groups, who argued that automatic checks to not necessarily prevent gun violence from taking place.

A half-dozen gun bills requiring background checks have been introduced in Congress since Columbine, but all but one failed to get out of committee. In April of this year, a gun bill requiring background checks on buyers at gun shows or online failed to pass the Senate.

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