Requests for gunman's FOID denied

State police say NIU shooter's card private; some officials disagree

Published: 4/14/2008 12:05 AM

SPRINGFIELD -- After a gunman burst into a Northern Illinois University classroom and killed five students, the state police quickly spread the word that the shooter had legally purchased guns with a valid state firearm owner's ID card.

But in the weeks since the Feb. 14 tragedy, Illinois State Police have said little else about 27-year-old Steven Kazmierczak, repeatedly refusing to provide documents or answer questions about the crucial card that allowed him to buy guns.

Doing so would violate the dead gunman's privacy, the Illinois State Police said in denying a Daily Herald legal request. Aside from his privacy, state police also said the shooter's gun card records are entitled to the same confidentiality protection granted to personnel files of doctors, nurses and others whose professions require state registration and licenses.

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Several officials disagree with that stance, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Her public information specialist urged state police to reconsider releasing the information, saying it is a public record and the reasons cited for maintaining secrecy are invalid.

In addition to Madigan, leading gun critics and advocates also agree that the shooter's gun card information should be made public.

"I think that the privacy issues are removed because the individual is dead and once you get to this level, you are not invading anybody's privacy," said Todd Vandermyde, an Illinois lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. "Typically, the FOID card has been protected from publication, but in a case like this I think there are some ongoing questions that should be answered."

In an attempt to answer some of those questions, the Daily Herald sought information on how the gunman was eligible to purchase at least four guns at a now-closed Champaign gun shop. He bought two guns just days before the NIU shootings.

From the picture that's emerged so far in the media, it's known that he underwent mental health treatment, including mood-stabilizing drugs and a year in a group home.

That's a vital element, as the application form for a state gun owner's card specifically asks if the applicant has undergone any mental health treatment as part of a series of questions meant to screen those seeking to own guns.

State police would not answer whether he'd checked the mental health box.

One prominent gun advocate and former top official in Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration recently testified that the state police lack the resources to adequately do background checks. Joel Brunsvold, once the governor's top adviser on hunting and similar outdoor issues, recommended raising the cost of the gun cards to finance better background checks.

But Illinois State Police Sgt. Luis Gutierrez told the Daily Herald the agency indeed has enough in its budget to cross check criminal and mental health databases daily in approving gun card applications.

"That information, everything that's being placed on that application is being verified," said Gutierrez, a state police spokesman. "Mental health is a separate check."

Providing false information on a gun card is a felony and could result in prison time.

Contrasting the gun card runaround, the Daily Herald was able to obtain the gunman's driver's license information and driving record within an hour from the Illinois Secretary of State's office. The state agency regulating hunting and fishing licenses also said its records are easily available after filing a legal request.

And while state police claimed there were occupational license exceptions that allowed the agency to keep the NIU shooter's records under wraps, the state department of professional regulation publishes information about everyone from brain surgeons to nail technicians whose jobs require a valid state occupational license.

Lingering questions about the shooter's mental health treatment and gun ownership are all the more critical as a new state law taking effect in June greatly expands the background check process to include even outpatient mental health treatment. The law was approved last year in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings.

But with its effective date approaching, the law is facing scrutiny in the mental health community over what and how to report.

"The wording of the legislation is so unclear that no one knows if it applies to just mental health facilities or people in private practices," said Daniel Stasi, executive director of the Illinois Mental Health Counselors Association. "I would think most people won't comply because they won't even know the law exists."

The new law requires health professionals to report clients with violent tendencies to the state, which then checks that against what information gun card applicants provide. To prevent gun purchases in other states, health service agencies must also report mental illness information to the federal government.

State Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat and former anti-gun lobbyist who pushed the new law, said he hopes it will lessen the chances of people like the NIU gunman getting weapons.

"The killer does not strike me as the perfect candidate to own a gun, given his history," Kotowski said. "I think in the future, moving forward, how can we ensure that people who have such a history be prevented from getting guns?"