Thursday, April 05, 2012

Audit finds problems with FOID system

By Jamey Dunn

According to a state audit released today, the state’s Firearm Owner Identification system is flawed and may be a risk to public safety.

Auditor General William Holland found that the vast majority of counties are not submitting court orders to the state that would disqualify card holders from gun ownership. “The effectiveness of the Illinois FOID card program operated by the [Illinois State Police] is limited in promoting and protecting the safety of the public. There are significant deficiencies in the reporting of individuals with potentially disqualifying mental health conditions to the Illinois State Police. Consequently, in most counties, if the court finds individuals to be a “mental defective” or “intellectually disabled” (terms used by the Act), ISP is not receiving the information needed from the circuit court clerks to revoke or deny FOID cards for individuals from those counties. Unless reported by another source (such as a state-operated mental health facility, hospital, etc.), individuals from those counties could receive or continue to hold a valid FOID card and could use it to purchase firearms and ammunition,” the audit said.

According to the state police, there were 1,316,508 individuals with active FOID cards in Illinois as of January 2011. The Illinois State Police’s Firearms Services Bureau received 903,139 FOID applications from 2008 to 2010. Of those, 879,906 were approved and 20,152 were denied. Auditors found that only three of the state’s 102 circuit clerks had submitted mental health rulings to the state, and the court orders that were submitted were lacking important information, such as the ages and genders of subjects.

Holland’s report also notes that the mental health information that should be passed on to the federal government was not being shared. “In addition, because many of these disqualifying conditions are also required to be reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is used by other states when individuals purchase firearms, the safety of the general public as a whole is at risk.”

Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Police, said in a written statement: “The department has already been in contact with the Illinois Administrative Office of the Courts for assistance in communicating with the courts and clerks and is partnering with the attorney general’s office in drafting a letter to the clerks explaining the requirement and how best to communicate with the department.”

But clerks argue that they cannot submit the information unless ordered to by a judge. “The role of the clerk is ministerial in nature. The court must make the determination that an individual is mentally defective, and as such, direct the clerk to notify the state police of that status. Without that direction from the judge and court, the clerk would be in the position of making determinations regarding who is entitled to a FOID card. Such a situation would not only create potential liability for the clerk’s office but usurp the authority of the court,” Gina Noe, president of the Illinois Association of Court Clerks and a circuit clerk in Marshall County, said in a written statement. “The Illinois Association of Court Clerks has been communicating with the Illinois State Police on this issue and will continue to do so.”

Bond said the Illinois Department of State Police is backing House Bill 4456, which would clarify the clerk’s role in the process and require them to submit such rulings with or without direct orders from a judge.

The audit found other problems with the system beyond the lack of mental health records. Thousands of cards were not being delivered to applicants. The State Police told auditors that many of these cards were returned by the post office as undeliverable. Auditors estimated that 6,200 cards had come back to the State Police. The department did not have enough people to answer phone calls related to the FOID program. During the last quarter of 2010, 85 percent of calls went unanswered.

“On some days during peak times, more than 1,000 calls per day are received. Like government agencies across the country, we are doing more with less and are in the process of looking at ways to manage these expectations. If an employee calls in sick, in order to maintain a steady flow in processing applications, we have to rely on the employees that are available, resulting in overtime,” Bond said. She said that the department is considering a more automated phone system.

The state police also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on overtime costs associated with processing FOID applications. Between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2011, the state police spent $526,919 on overtime for the FOID program. Almost $240,000 of that went to three employees. 

The department was unable to process FOID card applications by the 30-day deadline for approval or denial of applications. “In 2008, only 40 percent of cards were approved within the required 30 days. The processing times improved to 80 percent in 2009 and decreased to 70 percent in 2010,” the report said. “In 2008, 67 percent of FOID cards were denied within 30 days. The percentage increased to 78 percent in 2009 and decreased to 67 percent in 2010.”

Bond said that rushing the application process could compromise public safety. “More than 50 percent of the applications without criminal issues are processed and mailed within one week of being received. The backlog is a result of those applications that require more scrutiny.”

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