CHAMPAIGN — At 66 years old, Liz Nicol is probably not a person most would expect to be packing a Ruger 38 Special.
"I am finally going to be Annie Oakley after all these years," jokes Nicol, of Champaign, who is one of the thousands of Illinois residents who have already completed firearms training and the other requirements necessary for an Illinois concealed-carry permit.
Sunday is the first day Illinoisans can apply, online only, for the five-year license, and Illinois State Police expect their website to be busy.
After all, some folks have been waiting years for this day, as Illinois is the last of the 50 states to allow its citizens to carry a concealed handgun in public. (The District of Columbia does not allow concealed-carry.)
Lawmakers approved the law last year after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the state's long-time ban on concealed-carry in 2012. In 2002, there were still seven states, including Illinois, that prohibited concealed-carry, but by March 2012, Illinois stood alone.
And the number of U.S. citizens carrying concealed weapons continued to grow. According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there were at least 8 million active permits to carry concealed handguns in the U.S. as of Dec. 31, 2011.
Since July, Illinois State Police have been working to implement the new law.
Concealed-carry laws vary greatly from state to state, as do opinions on the issue.
Here in Illinois, it had been controversial, with some state lawmakers fighting to preserve the long-time ban while others supported giving citizens the right other states already had.
Nicol, who wants a gun for personal protection, said some acquaintances haven't approved of her decision. There can be a stigma, she said.
"I respect (my gun). I will know how to use it. I will not be a danger to myself and others, and I am legal. ... And that's fine if they choose not to like me because I choose to protect myself and do something I enjoy. I don't take it personally," she said.
Like Nicol, Matt Crider of St. Joseph was not experienced with guns but has completed all the requirements, including the 16 hours of training, and plans to apply for his permit soon. He's getting his concealed-carry license for personal protection, too, he said, but also to protect others at his church should the unthinkable happen. He said the church staff discussed it and thought having a couple people able to concealed-carry would be good.
Crider said he doesn't plan to carry a gun all the time, just in certain places and his vehicle. He said the training he went through has been very good and has prepared him well. He said there's so much more to it than just firing a gun.
"So I think the more continued training you go through, the better off you will be," said Crider, who added that those uncertain about this new law shouldn't worry. "I follow the news and politics and to me, there is nothing better than a legal, safely-armed citizen."
Indiana has allowed its residents to concealed-carry — and openly carry — handguns for years and requires no firearms training.
William D. Sanders Jr., sheriff of Fountain County, Ind., said concealed-carry is second nature in Indiana.
"We've had it for a long time, and we all accept it," said Sanders, explaining how he recently had a gentleman walk into the sheriff's department carrying two exposed guns in holsters on both hips. Sanders, who had the man put the guns back in his vehicle, said that if there is an issue, it's not with concealed guns but with openly carried guns. If his department gets a call, it's for people walking into restaurants or gas stations with an exposed gun in a holster and no badge.
In Wisconsin, it's concealed-carry only, and the law is much newer. It took three tries over more than 10 years before state lawmakers passed a law there in 2011. Since then, more than 200,000 residents have obtained permits. It's gone extremely well, according to Jeff Nass, executive director of Wisconsin Force, a pro-concealed-carry organization.
"I think Wisconsin has found that all the horror stories and made-up scenarios turned out not to be true," said Nass, who added that he believes Illinois' required 16 hours of training for concealed-carry is excessive. Four hours is required in Wisconsin.
Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, an affiliate of the National Rifle Association, said the more training the better, and Illinois has the longest training requirement in the country. New Mexico is the next closest, he said, with 15 hours, and another requires 12, but after that it drops off to four and five hours or less.
"There are a lot of skills you can teach in that 16 hours," he said.
What is a "concealed" firearm?
A loaded or unloaded handgun (pistol or revolver) carried completely or mostly concealed, the law states, on a person or within a vehicle. "Handgun" does not include a stun gun or taser, machine gun, short-barreled rifle, shotgun or any pneumatic gun, spring gun, paintball gun or BB gun. Local law enforcement officials said if a person's concealed handgun inadvertently shows as a person bends over or takes off a jacket, police won't be pouncing to make an arrest. Walsh said the officer has discretion, but the idea is to keep it concealed or mostly concealed.
"This is not the Wild West where someone has two six shooters strapped to their side," he said.
Are there accuracy requirements?
Yes. Some states don't require concealed-carry license holders to actually shoot a gun in their training courses, but Illinois is requiring at least four hours at a range with a handgun, including a live-fire qualification round using a concealable firearm. Students must be at least 70 percent accurate in shooting 10 rounds each from a distance of five yards, seven yards and 10 yards.
Dean Hazen, a certified concealed-carry instructor, said experienced shooters have no problem, but it can be challenging for novices.
He said he's had four students who didn't pass the live-fire test. All had never fired handguns before, and all were women over 50, he said. But they took a remedial class and then scored better than some experienced shooters, he said, because they were willing to listen, learn and had no bad habits to break.
Nicol never owned a gun before now and had little experience with them, but as a single woman, she wanted to learn and concealed-carry for protection.
"I just feel I need protection," said Nicol, who plans to wear a holster rather than carry her .38 in her purse. "Because if you saw my purse, it would take me a half hour to find it."
But Nicol said she can't imagine getting the permit without learning to safely handle, care for and fire her gun. She said she wants it to be second nature before she starts carrying it in public.
"To me, that's important," said Nicol, who passed her live-fire test and has learned that she enjoys shooting as a recreational activity. "It's like anything, if you don't do it all the time, you are not good at it. What's the point of having a license, but not shooting? You are the one who will end up getting hurt."
Law enforcement concerns?
Local police chiefs and sheriffs have some minor concerns with concealed-carry in Illinois but generally believe it's a good idea.
"I think once everybody gets used to it, it won't be a big deal," Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh said.
Walsh said he anticipates some people who concealed-carry will inadvertently go places it's not allowed.
Why? Illinois' new law has a lot of "gun-free" zones, but there are some exceptions that get complicated.
For example, a person cannot concealed-carry in a park. But a person can concealed-carry on a trail that passes through that park if a portion of the trail, rather than the entire trail, passes through the park. Also, public gatherings or events held on public property and requiring a local government permit are off-limits, unless it's a person who must walk through that public gathering or event to get to his or her residence, place of business or vehicle.
And many parking lots connected to gun-free zones are also off-limits, but in some parking lots, a person is allowed to have the concealed weapon within the vehicle. They can also get out of the vehicle to put the gun in the trunk as long as it's unloaded first.
That, Walsh said, could be a safety issue: Unloading a gun in a parked car.
Thomason said if gun carriers walk into prohibited areas, like businesses, that have the option of prohibiting concealed-carry in their establishments, it's likely going to be accidental, because concealed-carry license holders don't want to risk revocation.
"And concealed-carry to me is going to be law-abiding citizens applying for these, and I don't see them trying to violate any laws or trying to provoke anyone," he said.
Thomason said the biggest concern will be police interacting with a public now allowed to concealed-carry, especially during traffic stops. Officers need to know if a person has a concealed weapon, he said.
"They need to announce that, if officer approaches, they have a concealed weapon to avoid any mistakes from happening," he said.
Danville Public Safety Director Larry Thomason said he is telling Danville police officers, particularly at night, to ask during a traffic stop if a person is concealed-carrying to avoid any mistakes or misunderstandings. It's for the officer's safety and safety of the individual, Thomason said.
"We don't object to the conceal-carry at all in law enforcement, but identification needs to be made," he said.
Hazen, a 16-year police veteran, master firearms instructor for police and distributor for Precision Cartridge is a certified concealed-carry instructor and teaches classes at the Sportsman's Club of Urbana in Mahomet. He said he has run four courses since November, training 200 people.
"We've been very busy, have had a lot of questions, phone calls, emails. We've had no problem finding students," he said.
Hazen said he teaches students to use their common sense and consider the nature of the stop. If they know they're being pulled over for speeding, it's going to be a routine stop, and the officer will write a ticket and leave. Telling them will just prolong the stop. If you're pulled over at night and officers approach with spotlights shining into the vehicle, better tell them. Or if it's a stop that you're asked to exit the vehicle, better tell them, he said. Hazen tells students to keep their insurance cards in a separate place from the gun, too.
"Avoidance is the best policy. If you're concealed-carrying, be more vigilant about obeying speed and traffic laws," he said. "If you're a worry bug, tell them every time."
Walsh has been involved with helping the Illinois Police Training Institute put together a presentation to help Illinois police officers understand the law. Walsh said it's up to the discretion of the police officers whether to pursue a violation by a concealed-carry individual, but he expects his deputies to be extremely easy-going as the public learns about this law.
"There will be a learning curve on behalf of citizens and officers," he said.
Jeffrey Kramer, attorney with Beckett and Webber in Urbana, said the law is very well-written, but he anticipates some challenges, for example, in how the statute is interpreted in regard to licensing. The law allows local law enforcement officials to file objections to a person's application for various reasons. Thomason that's a benefit for the local community and law enforcement, because local police may be aware of situations or incidents involving an applicant that the issuing agency would not be aware of and keep an individual from getting a license. Vermilion County Sheriff Pat Hartshorn said local police may be aware of a drug possession case, for example, handled in municipal court that would not be included in state data banks.
Walsh said he assumes there will be some tweaks to the law, especially if some case law develops, and there may be amendments by the state legislature in the future.
Walsh said the motivation to concealed-carry for many people is self-protection.
"And that's a good, valid motive," he said, but added that people need to realize that if they see a serious crime and decide to interject themselves that responding officers may not know who is the "bad guy."
But, Walsh said, 49 other states have concealed-carry and it really has not been a huge problem.
"I really don't think it will be a problem once we adjust to it," he said. "I've said this for many years, 'Right now there are bad guys driving around with guns. ... I see nothing wrong with good citizens having that same option legally.'"
Mike Metzler, Mahomet police chief, said Illinois' law is overly cumbersome and as with any new law there's going to be growing pains. He said it's entirely possible a person concealed-carrying could inadvertently enter a place where they are not allowed to carry.
"We will deal with it on a case-by-case basis. The good thing is there is discretion. We have discretion in enforcing virtually any law. We will rely on officers' good judgment to make a determination whether an arrest is necessary," said Metzler, who compared it to the new law prohibiting talking on cellphones while driving. "We will give people the opportunity to adjust. We will stop them and give them warnings and educate them rather than to immediately start cracking down and issuing tickets."
What must business owners do to prohibit customers from concealed-carrying in their establishments?
It's as simple as printing out the 4-inch by 6-inch uniformly-designed sign on the Illinois State Police website and clearly and conspicuously posting it at the entrance of the building or premises. The sign has a white background, no text and a graphic design of a black handgun with a red circle around and diagonal slash across the firearm. The sign is available at https://ccl4illinois.com/ccw/Public/Signage.aspx.
Thomason said that was the number one question he was asked by business people at a recent community meeting. He encouraged them to place the required sign at the entrance and explained that he doesn't foresee it being a problem.
Concealed-carry license holders don't want to lose their permits, he said, so they will not purposely violate a prohibited area. If someone does, Thomason said he expects it will be accidental, and business owners should politely ask the person to leave. If someone refuses, that's when it will become an issue for police, he said.
How many concealed-carry applicants is Illinois anticipating?
The estimate is 300,000 to 400,000 based on projections by legislators during the drafting of the act, according to Monique Bond, chief of communications with the Illinois State Police.
How does that stack up to other states?
According to a 2012 report by the United States Government Accountability Office, Florida, which has had concealed-carry since the mid-1980s, has more than 880,000 license holders. Pennsylvania has 786,000, Georgia 600,000, Texas 519,000, Indiana 406,000, Missouri 133,000 and Iowa 243,000.
Will the online application site handle the high traffic volume that's expected?
Bond said the site was successfully beta-tested with more than 900 firearm instructor applicants, and ISP continued its testing last week opening the application process to all applicants who had obtained electronic fingerprints.
"At this time, we have not experienced any issues and are prepared to address any should they arise," Bond said in her e-mail.
Bond said there will be a paper application process in place by July for those who don't have computer or Internet access. But she said the online application is the most efficient and cost-effective way to process an application.
How long after applying should applicants expect to get their permit?
By law, the state police have 90-120 days, according to Bond, depending on whether or not fingerprints are submitted. A complete application with no issues could be obtained sooner, but no application will be processed until the expiration of the 30-day law enforcement objection period for each application. The online application will certainly expedite the process, Bond said.
What does it take to get a concealed-carry permit revoked?
A license can be revoked:
— If the person no longer meets the basic requirements for the license or eligibility requirements of the Firearm Owners Identification Card.
— If the person has three violations of the act, for example, three instances of carrying where concealed weapons are not allowed.
— If a person has more than one violation of carrying a concealed firearm while under the influence of alcohol, drugs or a combination of both.
A license can also be suspended in the case of an order of protection against the permit holder.
How to apply
To apply, a person must:
Be 21 years old.
Have a valid Firearm Owner's Identification Card.
Have completed firearms training.
Not have been convicted or found guilty in the last five years in Illinois, or any other state, of a misdemeanor involving the use or threat of physical force or violence; or two or more violations related to driving while under the influence of alcohol, other drug or drugs, intoxicating compound or compounds, or any combination.
Not be the subject of a pending arrest warrant, prosecution, or proceeding for an offense or action that could lead to disqualification to own or possess a firearm.
Not have been in residential or court-ordered treatment for alcoholism, alcohol detoxification, or drug treatment within the last five years.
Concealed-carry instructor qualifications
21 years old.
Meet the requirements of the concealed-carry application.
Have a high school diploma or GED certificate.
Have at least one of the following firearms instructor certifications: (A) certification from a law enforcement agency; (B) certification from a firearm instructor course offered by a state or federal governmental agency; (C) certification from a firearm instructor qualification course offered by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training Standards Board; or (D) certification from an entity approved by the state police that offers firearm instructor education and training in the use and safety of firearms.