N-G analysis: 858 guns seized by four area law enforcement agencies since '15

N-G analysis: 858 guns seized by four area law enforcement agencies since '15

In the past three years, Champaign County law enforcement agencies seized 31 firearms while investigating domestic disputes.

After one bountiful burglary investigation, they recovered 19 handguns, five rifles and three shotguns.

They took another two guns away from someone who called 911 during a mental health crisis.

Whether a firearm is stolen in a residential burglary, taken after an arrest or held for safety reasons following a domestic dispute, rarely a day passes that police don't remove a firearm of some sort from the street — at least for the short term.

Since 2015, Champaign, Urbana and Rantoul police and the Champaign County sheriff's office have seized 858 handguns, shotguns and rifles, according to records obtained by The News-Gazette via open records requests.

What happens to those firearms once they're in police hands can vary widely.

Some are sent to a foundry to be melted down. Some are shipped to the state crime lab for testing. Some are returned to their owners. Some are even kept and used for police training exercises.

Many more firearms may soon stock the shelves of Illinois police departments, following state legislators' passage of a bill that authorizes judges to seize firearms from those who are a risk to harm themselves — or others.

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In Urbana, Police Evidence Technician Michelle Carr is one of the first people to handle a firearm once it's in police custody.

She ensures it's unloaded, makes it temporarily inoperable by placing a zip tie or other item through the barrel and breech, puts it in a box, and places it in an evidence locker.

Depending on the investigation, she may take the gun to the Illinois State Police crime lab in Springfield, where forensic scientists check for fingerprints, compare the gun's serial number to a database of unsolved crimes, or conduct ballistics testing.

If the gun is being held for any other reason — maybe someone found it — Urbana police can keep it for six months.

If a gun is returned to its owner, safety is the No. 1 concern, she said. The person picking up the gun must have a valid Illinois Firearm Owners Identification card or concealed-carry license, as well as an approved method for taking it home.

"What I will do is make sure the owner knows to bring a gun case," Carr said. "You can't just walk out brandishing a gun."

Urbana Police Chief Sylvia Morgan said there are in-house policies in place for guns held for safekeeping, when related to a mental health or domestic-related case.

For mental health cases, police can hold on to a firearm for 90 days. In general, the department is not required to keep a gun longer than 180 days after notice has been provided to the owner.

Morgan said both domestic violence and mental health situations can "turn violent very quickly," so police must act fast in those cases. But they also have constraints.

"The only way we would take a gun that was not used in a crime would be if we believe that the person is going to harm themselves," she said. "But we have to have pretty significant information on that end."

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In Champaign, if there's no longer a use for a firearm and the owner was notified but never claimed it, police Detective Patrick Funkhouser will likely see it.

As the department's armorer, it's his job to determine if a gun has utility, including whether it could be used by police for training. He said he's seen just about every gun that's been taken by police.

"We seize a significant number of guns, and some of them are very high-quality firearms," Funkhouser said.

"It's pretty rare to issue them back out to police. But we usually see if it's useful to us in an investigative capacity or maybe training. A lot of seized firearms are training aids," he said.

Police do not sell, trade or return firearms to the marketplace, Funkhouser noted. If there's no use for them and no one has claimed them, the guns get melted down.

"Over the years, we have gotten the assistance from various foundries in the state that allow us to bring firearms and illegal narcotics to their facilities," he said.

About twice a year, police fill a van with guns and drugs and make the pilgrimage to the cooperating foundries. (Their locations are typically kept secret, given the threat of being burglarized).

"We basically dump them all in this big cauldron, and watch to make sure it's being destroyed," Funkhouser said.

Over the past several years, he said the number of firearms taken by police has increased significantly, especially those seized in mental health-related cases.

"It's increased our workload with firearms," Funkhouser said. "We have a unit in the department now that's dedicated just to addressing violent crime."

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In 2015, Champaign County sheriff's deputies seized 18 guns. That number rose to 39 in 2016 and 50 last year.

Champaign and Urbana police have also seen increases.

Champaign police took 110 guns in 2015, 120 in 2016, 121 in 2017 and 40 in the first three months of 2018.

Urbana police took 14 guns in 2015, 32 in 2016, and 23 in 2017. Through March 2018, the department has seized seven.

Of all the guns seized by four Champaign County agencies in the last three years, 140 were returned to their owner or a designee, usually a family member.

The kinds of cases where guns are taken by police include domestic disputes, suicides, successful burglary investigations or those found and turned in.

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The majority of guns seized — 497 — were done so because handlers possessed them illegally, did not have an FOID card, or fired them unlawfully.

Other reasons are more grim.

Thirty-one were taken after a domestic dispute. Of those, a Glock, an Astra, a Tanfolgio 9mm, a .40-caliber Smith and Wesson, a Browning Hi-Power, two Enfield rifles, a Ruger rifle and a Thompson rifle were returned to owners.

Of the guns returned, 17 had been taken during home or vehicle burglaries.

In one Urbana home burglary in February 2016, an intruder made off with 11 handguns, five AR-15-style rifles and three shotguns. All were recovered and returned to their owner.

In a Champaign case from March 2018, four handguns and a shotgun were recovered and returned to an owner.

From 2015-17, Champaign police seized 23 firearms in connection to murders, 27 to robberies and 15 to assaults. Another 12 were taken after suicides and 10 were seized to either prevent a suicide or as part of a mental health intervention.

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In the wake of mass shootings across the country, the state legislature began a renewed push in February to lobby for stricter gun regulations.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan pushed three bills that would place stricter regulations on gun dealers, restrict the purchase of "military-style assault rifles" and strengthen laws to keep individuals with a history of violence or mental illness from obtaining or keeping guns.

On May 30, both houses passed a bill that would set up "lethal violence orders of protection," which would allow family members or law enforcement officers the ability to ask a court to temporarily intervene and prevent those who are a threat to themselves or others from possessing firearms.

If approved by Gov. Bruce Rauner, the so-called "red flag" bill would make Illinois the 11th state with such legislation. Another eight states have proposed similar bills.

One sponsor, state Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, said the law would "empower family members and law enforcement — often the first people to notice that a person is entering a mental health crisis or exhibiting violent behavior — to disarm a potentially dangerous individual."

Proponents say the legislation could ultimately reduce the number of suicides, as it has in neighboring Indiana.

A University of Indianapolis study that analyzed risk-based firearm seizure laws in Indiana and Connecticut found that they led to a 7.5 percent reduction in firearm suicides in the 10 years following their enactment.

"Most people would agree that there are some people that at least at some point in their life shouldn't have a firearm with them," said University of Indianapolis clinical and forensic psychology Professor Aaron Kivisto, who ran the study. "Whether it's a temporary crisis because of a layoff or whatever it might be, at some point, we just shouldn't allow people to have firearms.

"These laws fill a gap to prevent suicides, and hopefully homicides, too."