By the time Highland Park police arrived at Robert Crimo III’s home in September 2019, there had already been several signs of trouble.
A reported suicide attempt. Domestic violence calls to his family home. And then someone contacting police to say they heard Crimo had threatened people at the house, and that he had several knives.
Crimo had made threats “that he was going to kill everyone,” a police report reads.
The episode was alarming enough for police in Highland Park to alert state authorities in the event Crimo was seeking a gun permit. He wasn’t, but a few months later when he did seek one, the warning was not enough to keep him from acquiring it and later buying a high-powered rifle he allegedly used to rain bullets on the town’s Independence Day parade this week, killing seven and wounding many more.
The shooting immediately resurrected all too familiar questions about gun violence in America and easy access to weapons. But it also made clear that even in Illinois — one of the bluest of blue states — regulations are Byzantine and full of loopholes that are only revealed after tragedy strikes.
And the state had been warned recently about the limits of its laws permitting Firearm Owners Identification cards and dealing with those who have them.
Three years ago, a gunman opened fire on a manufacturing plant in Aurora. Five people were killed. Five police officers were wounded.
And the aftermath revealed red flags: The attacker’s felony background was not caught in his FOID background check. His gun permit eventually was revoked, but nobody made sure he surrendered his firearm.
State police leaders pledged reform. Lawmakers promised meaningful legislation that would tighten up loopholes.
But just three years after Aurora, Crimo — despite being flagged as a possible threat by local police — allegedly took his rooftop perch overlooking downtown Highland Park.
“For those of us that have been fighting this fight over the past three years this is a real gut punch,” Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly told the Tribune. “And we are genuinely struggling to determine what, if anything, could make the difference in the future.”
Politicians, including Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, are again calling for the strengthening of the state’s gun laws.
It was little consolation to Highland Park residents. James McGuinness, who moved to the town from England 11 years ago, hadn’t left his home before staring down the parade route days after the massacre.
“The guns, I can’t fathom it, that my daughter can’t ever come to a parade, or kids can’t go to school,” McGuinness said. “We shouldn’t live like this,”
Gary Martin arrived at the Henry Pratt Co. warehouse early on Feb. 15, 2019. And he was armed with a Smith & Wesson handgun.
He knew he was facing discipline after he’d had a dispute the previous day about safety glasses. That morning, Martin warned his co-workers that if anyone tried to fire him, he’d kill “every mother(expletive) here.”
At about 1 p.m. Martin was called into a meeting. As he entered, he was given a disciplinary write-up and told that they would begin the termination process. He began using profanity, and someone responded, “OK, it’s over.”
“Yeah, it’s over,” Martin replied. And then he opened fire.
Four employees were killed inside the room. Martin then went to the loading dock, where people saw him shoot and kill another man, officials said. Martin wounded five police officers before he was killed in the shootout.
The shooting exposed two major gaps in the firearms regulation system in Illinois. For one, a background check done for Martin’s January 2014 application for a FOID card failed to catch a 1995 felony conviction in Mississippi for stabbing and beating his girlfriend with a baseball bat. The criminal charges were not entered into a national database, and Illinois does not require fingerprinting for a FOID card that would have likely caught it.
Martin’s conviction was caught in March 2014 when he filed for his Illinois concealed carry license and agreed to be fingerprinted in order to expedite the process. The felony popped, triggering a revocation of his FOID card. ISP sent a notice to Aurora police, which would have required they confiscate his FOID and any weapons.
By then he already owned the Smith & Wesson .40-caliber handgun he later used in the mass killing. And in the next five years, Aurora police never followed up on the revocation notice.
A 2019 Tribune investigation revealed that Martin was hardly the only revoked cardholder in the state who had lost their ability to carry a gun but never turned in their weapons. The investigation revealed that as many as 30,000 guns may still be in the possession of Illinois residents deemed too dangerous to have them.
At the time Crimo applied for his card that same year, the state knew there were at least 457 people who did not properly relinquish their guns after losing their FOID card because of a “clear and present danger” designation in the past four years.
When the clear and present danger report about Crimo reached state police in September 2019, an officer read it and determined that the allegations didn’t meet the standard for ISP to declare Crimo an imminent threat.
The decision surprised many, considering the details in the report.
Officers had gone to his home and found 16 knives in a tin-can lunchbox, plus a samurai-style sword and a dagger, in Crimo’s bedroom closet.
Crimo admitted to previous drug use, and said he had been depressed the previous Monday, when he had allegedly made the threats. “Robert was not forthcoming as to the language that he used on Monday nor was his mother,” the report said.
On Thursday, Kelly, the state police leader, stood by his comments this week that the Highland Park report did not meet the legal standard for state police to officially declare him a threat.
The report was reviewed by a state trooper assigned to the Firearms Services Bureau, but at that point Crimo had no pending FOID application. Shortly thereafter, the clear and present danger designation apparently was cleared from the state system, authorities said.
A few months later, Crimo applied for a gun permit, and there was nothing in the system to stop him.
In fact, the process appears to have been relatively smooth. Since Crimo was 19, his father gave his consent for the application as a “sponsor;” Crimo cleared the background check and ISP issued his FOID card in January 2020.
A month later, he bought a Smith & Wesson M&P15 he would allegedly use at the parade at a Chicago-area gun shop.
Within days of the Pratt mass shooting, a group of Illinois lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the gun issue gathered in Springfield to address weaknesses in the FOID card process.
State Rep. Kathleen Willis, a Democrat from Addison who wanted a review that identified weaknesses beyond those that emerged in the Pratt tragedy, sponsored legislation. It would later become colloquially known as “Fix the FOID.”
During a debate on the House floor in late May 2019, Willis said a working group made up of both gun-rights supporters and gun-control advocates helped create the legislation and said its goal was to ensure “we only … have the correct people owning firearms,” according to a transcript of the debate.
Highlights of the legislation included setting up an online portal so county prosecutors and judges could more easily identify people whose FOID cards had been revoked, requiring applicants to be fingerprinted, shortening the FOID card’s expiration date from 10 years to five years, and a giving a major update to the FOID card system, which has been in place for half a century.
To help pay for all the changes, Willis initially had sought increasing the fee to acquire a FOID card from $10 to $50 for first-timers and renewals. But that proposal didn’t even make it as far as the House floor after running into fierce resistance in a committee hearing, prompting her to amend the cost increase to $20.
During the House debate, the legislation ran into a string of opposition that highlighted Illinois’ deeply embedded regional differences between gun-rights advocates and gun-control supporters, including opposition from the current GOP nominee for governor, Darren Bailey of downstate Xenia.
Then a state representative, Bailey, who is now a state senator, railed against the legislation because he said increasing FOID card costs would hurt law-abiding citizens and fingerprinting was “an intrusion on our privacy.”
Other proposed new requirements, such as fingerprinting applicants, were viewed by some as non-starters, and the cost remained an issue.
Even state Rep. Kam Buckner, a Chicago Democrat now running for mayor in 2023, raised concerns about the cost hikes proposed in the legislation, saying it could adversely affect “economically depressed” Illinoisans such as single mothers, the elderly and people on fixed incomes.
“I also want to make sure that the right of self-defense is not a luxury that’s available only to those who can afford it,” said Buckner, who nonetheless supported the Willis legislation.
It would be more than two years before the Senate would strike a compromise and pass a bill in May 2021. To quell objections, the new legislation would make fingerprinting optional instead of mandatory, hold the FOID card cost at $10 for a 10-year permit, and require more background checks to include private gun sales, a significant step.
The bill did include creating a portal for officials to use to check on whether people had their FOID suspended or revoked, aimed directly at stopping the type of ball-dropping that allowed the Henry Pratt shooter to slip through the cracks.
Kelly had worked with lawmakers on the final legislation, which also drew neutral responses from several gun-rights advocates, and the bill cleared its final hurdle in the legislature when the House approved it in June 2021.
Pritzker signed the bill in a ceremony in Aurora, where Republican Mayor Richard Irvin, who lost the GOP primary last month to challenge Pritzker, hailed the governor for signing the law.
But it was not an all-encompassing overhaul. It did not result in changes to “clear and present danger” warnings that might have gone on to affect the Crimo case.
That concern, Willis recalled, “had not come to the point of being on our radar.”
In all, the process had its difficulties, she said.
“It is the curse of the Second Amendment,” Willis told the Tribune this week. “People are so afraid to go against what they interpret the Second Amendment to state that they bend over backward to allow people that shouldn’t have guns (to) have guns.”
Some limits do have an effect on keeping guns out of the wrong hands, experts said.
Fingerprinting Gary Martin when he applied for his FOID, for example, likely would have led an investigator to his criminal record in Mississippi and a potential denial of his FOID permit.
A 2020 study by Johns Hopkins found that such a permitting process has been associated with reductions in fatal mass shootings, along with limiting the firepower available for purchase. Crimo allegedly had three 30-round magazines with him at the shooting, far above the 10-round magazine limit some states have enacted.
Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions and lead author of the study, said the findings showed a strong link between the high-capacity magazines and violence at mass shootings.
“I think it’s ridiculous that civilians in our country have military rifles of this sort. It serves no useful purpose,” Webster said of the assault-style weapons. “But banning them is hard to do. … Something a little more straightforward is (saying) you can’t have a magazine feeding device that is more than 10 rounds.”
Under current rules, no laws were broken in the Crimo case. He legally obtained his FOID card through standard procedures.
Kelly of the Illinois state police told the Tribune the Firearms Services Bureau, which administers FOID, has made significant strides. He estimated about 90,000 people have been stopped from getting a FOID card for reasons under stepped up enforcement since the Pratt shooting.
It does not appear reforms would have changed the outcome in Crimo’s application. And in explaining them to the Tribune in an interview Thursday, Kelly described how state police are forced to adhere to both the language of the law and administrative rules about how to enforce it.
It is of course too late for the Crimo case, but as of July 2020, state police now retain clear and present danger reports even if they determine that the subject does not meet the standard, Kelly said. If the subject of the report later applies for a FOID, the report alone is not enough to deny them the gun permit, but officials now use them to point them to information that could be pertinent to their review of the application.
Kelly said his staff is being as “aggressive” as they can in making such improvements, though the horrific Highland Park shooting suggests there is much more to do, he said.
“We are not legislators,” he said. “Our role is to provide facts and information so that the policymakers can make informed decisions and adjust those laws according to what is best for public safety.”
In the wake of the shooting, some have called for more education and awareness around the state’s “red flag” law — a separate tool that allows courts to temporarily confiscate guns from people they believe are dangerous.
But that is another retroactive approach, experts said, and one other countries have avoided.
The United Kingdom, which has one of the world’s lowest firearm homicide rates, is one of several European nations, including Austria and Ireland, that require applicants for a gun license to give an adequate reason for owning a firearm such as hunting or self defense.
At least one U.S. state is considering a more proactive approach.
Last week, New York state reportedly announced a new strategy for screening people seeking to carry concealed handguns that will require applicants to hand over social media accounts for a review of their “character and conduct.”
The question to ask in Illinois and across the country, Webster said, is, “what are the standards for legal gun ownership?”
“What do you have to prove that you can have a firearm and be safe in society and in our world,” Webster asked. “In other countries the standards are much stricter and if they see a pattern of violence or reckless behavior, the default is ‘no.’”
Tribune’s William Lee, Jacob Sheridan and The Associated Press contributed.