In wake of Highland Park massacre, law on firearms restraining orders in Illinois seen as confusing and underused: police leaders, experts

Gun Rights

A group of law enforcement officials and experts from around Illinois and across the country gathered in mid-June to begin crafting a plan to increase awareness among the general public and fellow cops of a three-year-old state law aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people.

About midway through the agenda, Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly posed a direct question to the nearly two dozen in attendance, according to minutes of the meeting: “Why are (firearms restraining orders) not being used?”

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During a short discussion, at least one police leader noted there was confusion about when and how to use the orders, which allow a judge to temporarily bar ownership of a firearm if a person is deemed a danger to themselves or others.

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About two weeks later, a gunman who had allegedly made comments threatening others and had a history of troubling, firearm-related postings online opened fire at the Highland Park Independence Day parade, killing seven and wounding dozens of others in yet another deadly mass shooting that grabbed the nation’s attention.

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Robert Crimo III, who last week pleaded not guilty to 117 counts related to the shooting, legally purchased his guns. Questions have been raised about whether Illinois laws could or should have been used to either bar his purchases of firearms or subsequently removed them from his possession.

One focus of that discussion has been the Firearms Restraining Order, the state’s so-called red flag law.

In the days after the shooting, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker told CNN the state needs to look at “changing some of the verbiage in the law on red flags so that something could have been filed that would have prevented” Crimo from being able to obtain a firearm owner’s identification card and, ultimately, a gun.

The governor also said a family member would have had to step forward to ask a judge for a restraining order, something that never happened in the Crimo case, though Illinois law also allows law enforcement to petition a court.

Whether a restraining order could have prevented the Highland Park shooting is unclear. But those familiar with Illinois law say public details of the case appear to suggest an intervention could have been considered and authorities should examine why it was not.

“It’s a tool in the toolbox, and they need to know when to implement it,” said state Rep. Denyse Wang Stoneback, a Skokie Democrat and former gun violence prevention advocate. “This is the kind of situation the firearms restraining order was designed to address.”

Since the law took effect in 2019, just 228 of the orders have been granted in Illinois, according to Illinois State Police. In Maryland, an estimated 2,000 red flag orders have been granted since the law went into effect in late 2018, according to data from the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at Johns Hopkins University. Researchers in California, meanwhile, say about 1,000 were granted there between 2016 and 2019.

The Tribune found inconsistent use of the orders in the 3 ½ years they’ve been in effect in Illinois, with at least 70 issued in DuPage County, but just 31 in Cook County and 21 in Lake County, home to Highland Park, according to data from Illinois State Police. Seven were filed in both Will and Kane counties, three in Winnebago, which includes Rockford, and two in downstate Madison County.

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Overall, the orders were issued in 33 of the state’s 102 counties.

Meanwhile, in the weeks following the shooting, the Illinois attorney general’s office scheduled several trainings about the red flag law. And the state’s police certification board is working to meet its obligation under a new law that went into effect June 1 to lead training for officers on how to use it.

Experts agreed the small number of cases filed in Illinois cry out for more training. Especially because they know of hundreds of mass shooting threats in other states that resulted in a red flag order to remove firearms.

“I think we need to be more comfortable with this responsibility in a country where we have agreed that people should have ready access to guns,” said Shannon Frattaroli, a professor and expert from Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions in Baltimore.

Firearms restraining order laws, often called “red flag laws,” have been established in 19 states and Washington, D.C., most of them in the wake of tragic shootings.

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The Illinois law, which was approved with bipartisan support and went into effect in 2019 after years of negotiations in the state legislature, is designed to temporarily limit access to guns, gun parts and ammunition when people pose a significant threat to themselves or others.

There are two types of firearm restraining orders under state law: An emergency order that lasts up to 14 days and a six-month order, but only after court proceedings. The petitioner in such cases can be a spouse, ex-spouse, a parent, anyone related by blood or marriage, a roommate or a law enforcement officer.

If an emergency order is issued, a full hearing is scheduled as soon as possible so the subject has the opportunity to present a defense and a judge can consider whether the order should end or be extended for six months.

Judges can also extend a firearms restraining order for another six months depending on whether the petitioner goes back to court to raise more concerns.

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A review of firearms restraining orders filed in Cook County since the law took effect includes people threatening to shoot themselves or family members, including an allegation of someone pointing a gun at a spouse. One report describes a man who had suicidal thoughts and threatened a family member after buying weapons from local gun shops, including the purchase of an assault rifle.

Just two months after the law went into effect, police in Sangamon County filed for a firearms restraining order against a 33-year-old man who refused to stop his car for police and barricaded himself inside the vehicle for seven hours.

A Sangamon County sheriff’s deputy reported seeing a black handle of a pistol in the center console, according to court records.

“(Expletive) you I have nothing to lose,” the man reportedly said. “I’m ready to die.”

Two rifles, two shotguns, two revolvers, another handgun, a nonfunctioning shotgun barrel and 1,100 rounds of ammunition were seized within 24 hours of the confrontation, records show.

But use of the law has been relatively rare in Illinois compared with other states that have passed similar measures, and it’s essentially unheard of for restraining orders to be used proactively to keep people from getting guns.

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Frattaroli said this is a common misconception about red flag laws.

“There are two provisions of Illinois which is common across all the … states,” Frattaroli said. “Which is they temporarily prohibit possession. But they also temporarily bar new gun purchases. … We have found (this) needs to be better understood.”

Of the 228 firearms restraining orders issued in Illinois, DuPage County has led the way with 70, according to state police data.

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“Illinois is not unusual in these numbers,” Frattaroli said, noting the difference between DuPage and the rest of the state. “This variation to me signals there is work that needs to be done in order … to allow for these to be part of the infrastructure of gun violence safety. … People need to engage in these laws. Law enforcement needs to be knowledgeable. They need to know how to use them.”

In a statement to the Tribune this week, the Illinois attorney general’s office acknowledged that the firearms restraining order law rolled out without any funding for training.

“When the Illinois Firearm Restraining Order Act became law in 2019, it did not provide a process or funding mechanism for training,” the statement reads.

In late 2020, the office developed training and materials to raise awareness and has since trained “law enforcement agencies, state’s attorney’s offices, crime victims’ organizations, gun safety groups and veterans’ service providers,” the statement read.

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DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin said after reviewing the red flag legislation in 2018, he immediately added the topic to his annual training for law enforcement. He has also assigned an assistant state’s attorney to help with the filing of the orders, and he met with the county’s chief judge to set up a process to handle the filings, which are all heard in the same courtroom.

“We knew it would be effective,” Berlin said of the law. “We got out in front of it.”

Frattaroli, the Johns Hopkins expert, pointed to a similar outcome in Maryland, where Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin led training and education efforts not only in his county but across the entire state.

Before Maryland’s law went into effect in 2018, Popkin said, law enforcement had few options for keeping guns away from people experiencing mental health problems.

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“This one was a common sense approach to what to do when somebody was an immediate threat to themselves or others and had access to firearms,” said Popkin, whose county is located outside of Baltimore.

Popkin, who sits on the commission working to improve implementation of the Illinois law, said he was part of a group that put together regional programs for law enforcement to “train the trainer” in order to more quickly educate some 17,000 law enforcement officers throughout Maryland on how that state’s law works.

About 60% of the red flag petitions have been filed by law enforcement, and the remaining cases have been filed by health care professionals, family members or someone close to the gun owner, he said.

He said law enforcement often gets pulled into cases through 911 calls. Family members of a gun owner or someone close to the person might become alarmed by a threat of violence or signs of a mental health crisis.

“That’s why the training of law enforcement was so incredibly important,” Popkin said.

The story is similar in California, where training has been key to increasing the use of the law, said Veronica Pear, a University of California at Davis professor.

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After fewer than 100 red flag orders were filed in each of the first two years the state’s law was in effect, the city attorney in San Diegoled an effort to increase awareness and coordinate the response of courts and police, and filings there increased, Pear said.

While Popkin wouldn’t say whether he thinks Illinois’ red flag law could have prevented the Highland Park shooting, he said there were “great similarities” to cases he’s seen in Maryland, with “similar types of behaviors attributed to mental health and people in crisis.”

Berlin, the DuPage state’s attorney, said he’s not aware of any cases where the Illinois law has been used to prevent someone who isn’t already a gun owner from getting firearms. The Highland Park shooting, however, demands a closer look at whether the law could be used more proactively, he said.

“I am absolutely convinced we saved lives by using this law,” Berlin said. “I think, obviously, with what has happened in Highland Park and in places across the country that this is an opportunity to educate the public and the police that the law does allow for an order to prevent someone from obtaining a gun.”

Crimo in February 2020 purchased the rifle he allegedly used to fire from a rooftop onto the parade. He bought the rifle at a federally licensed gun dealer in the Chicago area.

Whether there was an opportunity, based on Illinois’ laws, to prevent that purchase or remove firearms from his possession once he had them is far less certain.

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In the months before getting approved to carry an Illinois gun permit, or FOID card, Highland Park police made two visits to Crimo’s home.

Neither resulted in an arrest, however. But there were signs of trouble documented in police reports released by Highland Park.

The first contact was in April 2019 when police responded to a report that Crimo had allegedly attempted suicide, according to the reports. Officers determined that the matter was being handled by a mental health professional. Five months later, police returned to the home, this time to investigate a report that Crimo made threats to “kill everyone,” according to the records.

Police spoke with Crimo, who “admitted to being depressed” on the day he allegedly made the threat. The reports notes also that he was “not forthcoming as to the language that he used … nor was his mother.”

Police removed more than a dozen knives from his bedroom closet. His father, who did not live in the home, said they were his.

No arrests were made, but Highland Park police did submit a Clear and Present Danger report to Illinois State Police.

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Such a report is required of law enforcement and school officials when they determine someone might pose an imminent threat of harm to themselves or others and should therefore have a FOID card revoked or denied.

Crimo, at that time, did not have a FOID card or an application for one. State police reviewed the case anyway and determined he was not an immediate threat. Then, under the agency’s interpretation of the Clear and Present law at the time, they purged Crimo’s record.

Since the shooting, state police have implemented new rules that will allow the agency to retain and expand the use of such reports.

How and whether a firearms restraining order could have been used is a completely separate matter. But it’s also an essential question in the wake of the tragedy, experts and law enforcement officials said.

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Highland Park police and Lake County authorities pointed to several reasons why, despite those 2019 police interactions, a restraining order was not sought.

For one, there were no weapons in the house and no firearm-related threat. Police on the scene did not observe any violence or hear a threat.

In an interview in July — prior to a judge issuing an order sealing investigation materials and forbidding prosecutors and defense attorneys from disclosing them — Highland Park police Chief Lou Jogmen said the department understood the Clear and Present Danger report to be the most robust and immediate action they could take to protect the public at the time by making sure Crimo couldn’t get a gun.

The police department said it has filed more than 400 of those orders since 2017.

Jogmen and other law enforcement authorities also told the Tribune that the Illinois’ red flag law has not been commonly understood by police to stop a first-time purchase

But they also emphasized that they do not think, even with this understanding, that the circumstances of the police visit would have met the legal standard to obtain a firearms restraining order.

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The family also had the authority under the law to seek a firearms restraining order. The Tribune contacted the Crimo family attorney to ask whether law enforcement ever made them aware of the option. “My understanding is that that was never discussed,” the attorney said.

State officials have reported that the family helped Crimo secure his permit and ability to purchase guns. In 2020, his father sponsored him for his FOID application because of his age.

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Even before the shooting, the Illinois General Assembly had already targeted the restraining order law for an overhaul.

Legislators last year amended state law to promote awareness and better training for police on how to implement the orders, leading to the launch in June of the statewide task force meeting where Kelly spoke.

In addition to working to improve implementation and awareness of the law, the commission is tasked with developing a policy for relinquishing guns in a timely manner, whenever a firearms restraining order is issued. .

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The amendment, which also made ex-spouses and parents who share minor children eligible to file red flags, was sponsored by Stoneback, the former gun safety advocate who was elected to the House in 2020.

“In states where this type of law is implemented, petitions have been filed to prevent mass shootings, hate crimes, domestic violence gun crimes and suicides,” Stoneback said during the May 2021 debate over her legislation on the House floor.

She pointed to a case in Washington where authorities used the state’s red flag law to disarm the leader of a hate group and to a study that examined 21 cases in which California’s law was used in efforts to prevent mass shootings.

“The law is not effective unless people are informed and empowered to use it, and it has been underutilized in Illinois,” Stoneback said during the debate.

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Lawmakers are expected to return to Springfield, possibly as soon as next month, for a special session on protections for abortion rights, but there’s also been discussion about addressing gun laws as well.

House Democrats have created a working group, led by state Rep. Bob Morgan, a Deerfield Democrat who was marching in the Highland Park parade, to work on gun-safety legislation, including potential fixes to the red flag law.

“Everything is on the table,” said Democratic Rep. Maura Hirschauer of Batavia, another gun safety advocate turned lawmaker appointed to the working group.

asweeney@chicagotribune.com

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jgorner@chicagotribune.com

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com

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