AURORA, Ill. – Gary Martin, the gunman who killed five and wounded six in a shooting rampage here last week, managed to slip through a background check process to buy the Smith & Wesson he used in the attack – even though the law prohibited him as a felon from owning a gun.
The system failed again just days later, when Illinois State Police figured out he had a 1995 conviction in Mississippi for aggravated battery – the felony that should have prevented him from getting a state firearms license.
Despite the knowledge, state and local police appear to have made only a cursory effort to compel Martin to turn over the handgun.
Martin opened fire Friday at the Harry Pratt Co. plant in Aurora, where he had worked for 15 years. Authorities say Martin, 45, had just been told he was being fired.
Terrified coworkers called police. Responding officers found themselves in a gun battle. He shot and wounded five officers before he was killed.
Illinois State Police records show Martin was sent a letter on April 15, 2014, telling him he was required to relinquish his state firearms license. Police gave Martin 48 hours to transfer his firearms to a licensed gun owner or give them up to police.
If he saw the letter, he ignored it.
He would hardly have been alone.
Fewer than half of Illinois gun owners whose licenses are revoked follow through with the requirement to show authorities that they no longer own firearms, according to State Police data.
State Police sent more than 10,800 revocation letters to Illinois residents last year. But “in most instances,” the agency said in a statement, the gun owners failed to vouch that they no longer possess a firearm.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart launched a gun suppression team in 2013 that tracks down gun owners whose licenses have been revoked.
“There are easily thousands and thousands of guns in people’s houses right now who have had their rights revoked,” he said. “When you are trying to get your arms around the magnitude of this problem – good luck. The system is so perverted.”
Apology: Aurora gunman’s family: ‘We deeply apologize’ for killings
The victims: Factory shooting rampage victims include HR manager, college intern and forklift operator
Departing message: Aurora shooting victim Josh Pinkard texted love to his wife as he lay dying
More: Who was Gary Martin? Alleged Illinois gunman seemed fine hours before killing co-workers
Illinois has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. All gun owners are required to have a license. State law requires gun sellers, whether licensed dealers or at a gun show, to verify with Illinois State Police that the buyer’s license is valid.
As part of the check, the agency performs an automated search of criminal and mental health databases to check for circumstances that would disqualify a potential buyer.
Still, some fall through the cracks.
State Police acknowledge Martin shouldn’t have been granted a license in January 2014. The agency also says the Aurora Police Department should have been informed through a statewide police database that his license had been revoked.
Martin managed to get through the background check process without his 1995 conviction in Mississippi surfacing.
Asked on his application if he’d ever been convicted, Martin answered ‘no,’ State Police said.
The search of records conducted by the agency firearms licensing staff produced only his Illinois criminal history information, which revealed nothing that would disqualify him, State Police said.
His application was approved, and he was issued his license.
Martin bought the Smith & Wesson in March 2014. Ten days later, he applied for a concealed carry permit.
He chose to submit fingerprints, which cuts the maximum processing time for an application from 120 days to 90 days.
The fingerprints helped surface his conviction in Mississippi, State Police say. They sent Martin the letter informing him his license had been revoked.
The agency was also supposed to notify police in Aurora, where Martin was living, of the revocation.
Aurora Police say they have yet to turn up records that they were informed of the revocation. Police Chief Kristen Ziman said she did not know if Aurora police or another agency made any attempt to see that Martin gave up his gun.
“We’re looking into that,” Ziman said.
If police had known that Martin had failed to comply with the revocation letter, they could have petitioned the county judge to issue a search warrant and attempted to retrieve the weapon.
State law doesn’t require local departments to seek warrants in such circumstances.
Kyleanne Hunter, vice president of programs at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says most departments don’t have the resources to do so consistently.
“This is primarily a resourcing problem,” Hunter said. “Unfortunately, we see this too often with things to do with enforcement of firearms law. In Illinois, they have a process, but they don’t have the resources to implement it.”
Illinois lawmakers have attempted to bolster regulations that ensure that gun owners whose licensees are revoked comply with laws.
State Rep. Kathleen Willis, a Democrat who represents a district west of Chicago, introduced legislation in 2016 that would have required local police to seek warrants to retrieve weapons.
But the legislation failed, in part because many departments simply don’t have the personnel to track down unlicensed gun owners.
Willis said the attack in Aurora should force lawmakers and law enforcement reconsider the issue.
“Maybe this moment will make some consider that this is a burden worth taking,” she said. “It is a heavy lift to take. But we have laws in place that need to be enforced.
“It doesn’t do us any good to tighten up our (gun) laws if we’re not following all the way through to make sure they’re enforced.”