Gun ownership appears to be growing in Illinois at the same time it is declining in the rest of the country.
There are now about 1.5 million holders of Illinois firearms owner's identification cards — the greatest number in the 45-year history of the FOID card law — and a record backlog of applications for cards, according to the state police.
The apparent growth in gun ownership in Illinois, where a FOID card is required to possess or purchase a firearm, comes at the same time that the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago reports the number of households nationally with guns has dropped from about 50 percent in the 1970s to about 34 percent in 2012.
Based on data obtained from the Illinois State Police through a Freedom of Information Act request, about 11.5 percent of Illinoisans have a FOID card.
But there is a broad disparity statewide, based largely on geography and urbanization. In Calhoun County — the third-least populous Illinois county, which is bordered by both the Illinois and Mississippi rivers — about 44 percent of all of residents have a FOID card. In Cook County, the most populous county in the state, about 6.5 percent of all residents have FOID cards.
The FOID card rate in East Central Illinois counties ranges from about 25 percent in DeWitt County to about 11 percent in Champaign County. Rates in other area counties: Vermilion, 17 percent; Piatt, 21.5 percent; Ford, 21.4 percent; Iroquois, 22.4 percent; Douglas, 19.4 percent; Edgar, 19.2 percent; and Coles, 15.6 percent.
The highest percentages of FOID card holders are in southern Illinois and along riverways, such as Calhoun, Pope, Hardin and Gallatin counties. In those counties, more than one-third of all residents have FOID cards.
More urban areas, such as Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, Champaign, Rock Island and St. Clair counties, have gun ownership levels of 15 percent or less.
The low rate in Champaign County, said the president of a local gun rights group, is partly attributable to the high number of college and university students. People under 21 can have a FOID card, but they need the written consent of a parent or legal guardian.
"Gun ownership and the gun culture is something that a lot of young people don't think about," said John Boch of Savoy, president of the group Guns Save Life. "It's only after they reach adulthood and get a place of their own, and they recognize that firearms offer protection and entertainment and recreation and all that, that's when they start taking an interest."
By city, Champaign's FOID card rate is 8.7 percent, Urbana's is 8.4 percent, Rantoul's is 12.4 percent and Mahomet's is 29.5 percent.
Other area communities: Tuscola, 27 percent; Monticello, 26 percent; Paxton, 20 percent; Springfield, 19.6 percent; Danville and Mattoon, 19 percent; Decatur, 18.4 percent; Bloomington, 13.67 percent; Charleston, 13.2 percent; and Normal is 8.86 percent.
Boch attributed the larger urban/rural split not to the popularity of hunting and outdoors activities but to cultural differences.
"It's a whole different take on gun ownership in general. People outside of the big cities recognize that guns are a means to protect yourselves until the police arrive," Boch said.
"In the big cities it's: Big Brother is there to take care of you and be a nanny state and tell you how big your sodas can be and tax your cigarettes, and all of that kind of silliness. Outside of the urban dependency culture, people are more self-reliant and prefer self-determination over big government."
He noted the number of hunting licenses sold in Illinois has dropped in recent years.
"People aren't buying these guns to go hunting," Boch said. "People are buying these guns to protect their families from violent offenders."
Since 1968, FOID cards have been required for any Illinois resident to possess or purchase firearms. Identification and background information is checked by the state police as part of the application process; last year 6,368 applications were denied.
As of Jan. 4, there were 1.48 million FOID card holders statewide, according to the state police. Since then, the number of applicants has soared.
"We're receiving over 70,000 applications a month now, so we're probably closer to 1.5 million card holders now and we're still having record months," said Lt. Darrin Clark of the state police.
State police are supposed to issue or deny a card within 30 days of the time the $10 FOID application is received, but the wait is now around 70 days, he said.
"When the system was built in 1968, it wasn't with the idea that we were going to be processing these numbers of FOID applications," Clark said. "For the first month of 2013, we did 61,172 applications. The previous record we received was 39,394 in March of 2012. So as of Jan. 31, we were 70,218 applications in the backlog.
"I'm sure there are various reasons why we've seen an increase. I think people are looking at the fact that concealed carry is on the horizon (in Illinois as a result of a federal court decision) and every bill that is out there, with the exception of a couple, the FOID card is the predicate to get the concealed-carry permit. Then we also have what is going on nationally as a result of what happened in Connecticut. I think that people who have never thought about gun ownership in the past have decided that they need to step off the fence, if you will."
Boch, the gun enthusiast, has a different take.
"People are nervous. They're anxious. They're worried and they're voting with their wallets saying, 'Hey I want to be able to protect my family. I know that a gun is a means to protect my family before the police arrive after call them,'" he said.
Gun owners fear tighter restrictions both nationally and in Illinois, Boch said.
He also disputes the notion, contained in the General Social Survey, that gun ownership is dropping nationally.
"Anybody who tells you that gun owners are declining in other states obviously has an agenda they're pushing," he said. "Ammunition and guns are both scarce right now. Ammunition is almost impossible to find. Magazines are nearly impossible to find. That should be all the empirical evidence anyone needs to see that there is a huge rush on firearms and ammunition nationwide. It's not any different in Illinois than any other state."
Boch, who said he has taught firearms safety and defense training for 15 years, said "I've got registrations this year like I've never had before."
In past years, he said, an average class size would be 15 to 20 students.
"Each and every one of my classes this year has over 40 students," he said.
Gun ownership in Illinois counties
This table shows the percent of residents in each county in Illinois with FOID cards, based on the 2010 Census.
|De Witt County||24.84|
|Jo Daviess County||20.42|
|Rock Island County||12.16|
|St. Clair County||14.97|
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.