Illinois lawmakers have approved a measure to legalize and regulate the carrying of concealed handguns.
Governor Pat Quinn’s office says he’s now “carefully reviewing” the legislation.
Advocates on both sides of the gun debate say a provision requiring hands-on training is an important part of the bill now awaiting the Governor’s action.
Peter Gray visited a central Illinois gun range to learn more about what will be required of people who want to carry a loaded weapon in public.
Most days, Ron Darnall hosts sportsmen at his gun range west of Bloomington. Teams blast clay disks out of the sky or pop holes through paper targets for points:
DARNALL: "We have quite a club here… and we do retail sales, both in firearms and ammunition… and a lot of repairs."
Today, Darnall is closing a bit early.
A group of uniformed officers have booked the range for the rest of the day. Their target practice is for public safety - not for sport.
These are armed guards hired by the government to protect U.S. courthouses and other federal buildings. They regularly prove their skill and reaction time with service pistols, just as police officers do.
Ron Darnall say many people he sells guns to have a lot to learn about their care - and the law. He says they’d benefit from the training and testing law enforcement have to undergo:
DARNALL: "We're seeing an awful lot of new shooters in the game, and they really need some instructions, some training and some legal aspects covered. So when they do have to make a decision - which is a big one - to use a firearm for protection, they'll know the laws and what they'll be involved in after the altercation happens."
Legalizing concealed carry in Illinois will likely mean a flood of new customers for range owners like Darnall.
That’s because lawmakers wrote 8 hours of mandatory training into the legislation… a number that later doubled as House Speaker Michael Madigan threw his political weight behind it.
Madigan's spokesman, Steve Brown, calls 16 hours rather than 8 hours “a common sense approach”:
BROWN: "We looked at all the states and I think this number will be the largest amount of training in the nation. A police officer goes through at least 40 hours of firearms training. Some people thought that would be a good number, but then thought, well that may be an unrealistic goal to try and achieve. Clearly the more training a person has with something as dangerous as a loaded firearm makes sense for the whole population."
In addition to the initial 16 hours of training, gun owners wanting to renew a permit after 5 years will have to return to the range for a refresher course.
When it comes to hours, Illinois went above and beyond standards set by other states. But lawmakers decided against something else other states do: Make shooters test, or “qualify”, with the same gun they plan to carry in public.
Greg Sullivan says that would have made sense for Illinois:
SULLIVAN: "If you're going to carry a weapon, and ever have to use it, you want something you're familiar with, that you've qualified with…"
Sullivan is head of the of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association. Some of the sheriffs he’s heard from wanted the full 40 hours of police-style training for new permit holders. But he says the general public doesn’t need tactical training police receive.
For Sullivan, ensuring that people carrying in public are doing so safely is less about quantity of time... and more about the quality of the instructor administering the test:
SULLIVAN: "I don't think any firearm instructor in his right mind is going to give anyone a certificate who they don't think can handle a weapon safely. You can flunk this course… yes. I think these instructors will be very cognizant of the fact that they want people out there that are carrying safely, responsibly… and if that's not the case, they're not going to pass them."
Back at Darnall's Gun Range near Bloomington, I meet armed security officer Frank Whitmore. He guards a federal building in the Quad Cities… and he’s recently gotten a side job:
WHITMORE: “About a year ago I became a NRA basic pistol instructor. A lot of guys are doing this now.”
It's people like Whitmore who the state is counting on to take on the likely flood of concealed-carry applicants. People who are already qualified to carry a gun while on duty in public, and certified to teach others how to carry, clean and store a weapon. Whitmore says a big part of training is getting misinformation out of people’s heads.
WHITMORE: “A lot of people who don't know about guns… don't know how to handle them safely… don't know what they can and can't do. Unfortunately, so much of what we learn today comes from television.”
People on both sides of the debate over guns in Illinois agree that hands-on,
“live fire” training is important for those who plan to carry a loaded weapon in public.
Those seeking a permit will first have to find a state certified instructor. The Illinois State Police is responsible for finding, screening and certifying trainers within 6 months of concealed carry becoming law.
State Police, with an understaffed office, is already struggling to process record numbers of firearm owner ID card applications.
The agency has asked for additional money to fund the rollout of concealed carry.