Despite an all-time high in the number of Illinois residents possessing a firearm ownership card, the number of gun dealers and businesses registering guns throughout the state has declined over the past five years.
Illinois saw a significant drop in the number of Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) across the state from 2019 to 2023. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives offers information on FFLs in Illinois dating back to February 2019. That month, there were 2,430 FFLs in Illinois. In December 2023, that number decreased to 1,551, a nearly 36% decline.
This drop occurred in conjunction with big box stores, including Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart, pulling some firearms from their stores following the 2018-2019 mass shootings in Parkland, Florida, and El Paso, Texas. As of December last year, only the Dick’s in Carbondale continues to sell firearms in Illinois.
While Walmart did not see as drastic a decrease as Dick’s, the chain went from about 60 stores with FFLs in 2019 to only 19 in December last year. Urbana’s Walmart is one of the few remaining that still sells firearms in Illinois.
The Champaign-Urbana area saw an even larger drop than the state’s average during the five-year span. In 2019, there were 22 FFLs in the area, which decreased to 12 as of December last year, a nearly 46% decrease.
Alongside decrease in dealers, requests for cards also fell
Though the number of dealers across the state has dropped in recent years, Illinois has reached an all-time high in the number of firearm card owners across the state. Over 2.4 million Illinois residents possess Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) cards, nearly 19% of the state’s 12.67 million population.
The greatest number of these cards have been issued in Cook County, with over 730,000 active cards at the end of 2023. Champaign County had issued 34,144.
However, even though the number of cards is the highest in Illinois history, the number of applications for cards each year has decreased annually since 2020. While the Illinois State Police received just over 483,000 FOID card applications in 2020, last year this number was closer to 317,000.
The state police website said FOID cards are valid for 10 years, and new FOID card applications are generally processed within 30 calendar days.
Although Champaign County has issued over 34,000 firearm cards, the county ranks low when comparing its population to card ownership. 16.6% of the county’s citizens have obtained firearm cards. Only Cook County, with 13.9%, and its surrounding counties of Lake and Dupage, with 15.8% and 16.1% respectively, have lower overall ownership percentages.
While the most populous counties in Illinois fall below the overall state average of 28.4%, Calhoun County tops the list with 43.3% of its 4,437 population possessing a firearm card. Calhoun is the third-least populated county in the state.
Despite Calhoun County’s high percentage of FOID card ownership, the area does not have any firearm manufacturers or dealers within its borders. Similarly, although Cook County has the state’s overall highest number of owners, the only dealer within county limits is the Pritzker Military Museum & Library.
Champaign County Sheriff Dustin Heuerman speculated these figures align with the ownership and distribution of firearms used for hunting.
“I would guess it would have something to do with less hunting ground in Champaign County when compared to more rural areas of the state,” Heuerman said in an email.
According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Champaign County has only 100 acres dedicated to public hunting, all located within the Gifford Pheasant Habitat Area.
Vermilion County has nearly 6,300 acres, and 25.3% of its population has obtained FOID cards. Calhoun County has 13,000 acres of hunting land, primarily around the Mississippi River State Fish and Wildlife Area — nearly double the amount of public hunting land as Vermilion County.
State seeing similar decreases in additional gun-related applications
Every time an Illinois citizen purchases or transfers a firearm through a FFL, the dealer must complete a background check through the state police Firearm Transfer Inquiry Program (FTIP). Illinois State Police Chief Public Information Officer Melaney Arnold said dealers are required to submit through an online portal the purchase type, the transferee’s name and ID number, date of birth and other identifying information.
Similar to FOID card trends, the greatest FTIP requests were fulfilled in 2020, at nearly 554,000. 2022 saw a 21% decrease in these requests, declining to 440,000. Applications for Concealed Carry Licenses have seen similar decreases — while ISP processed 113,758 requests in 2020, they processed 102,956 in 2022.
Heuerman specified that many firearm crimes committed in the Champaign-Urbana area do not come from registered owners.
“The majority of guns seized as a result of gun violence in our area are stolen or otherwise illegally possessed,” Heuerman said. “[The Sheriff’s Office has] also seen some instances where someone legally purchases a firearm and illegally sells it to someone else who cannot legally possess the firearm.”
Because of the Illinois Gun Trafficking Information Act, the Illinois State Police makes available statistics on gun trafficking through their Gun Trafficking Data dashboard. This dashboard includes incidents “where firearms were seized or used in the commission of a criminal offense or the possession of which constitutes a criminal offense (i.e., Possession of a Firearm without a FOID, etc.).”
Similar to other trends, gun trafficking decreased throughout 2023. While total firearm incidents from trafficked guns hit 1,804 on Dec. 12, incidents over the same period in 2022 reached 2,021.
The highest number of firearm trafficking incidents have occurred in St. Clair County, with 814 occurrences as of Dec. 12. While the county has 38 firearm dealers, none are located within East St. Louis, where many of the trafficked crimes have occurred.
Champaign County ranks ninth highest in trafficked incidents, at 32.
Organizations within Champaign County are attempting to address gun trafficking within the area. As part of the American Rescue Plan Act, Champaign County Crime Stoppers was awarded $100,000 for its illegal gun bounty program. This program awards $2,500 for anonymous tips that lead to arrests related to crimes involving illegal guns.
“Through October 31 of this year, Champaign has witnessed a 66% reduction in gun violence compared to the same timeframe in 2021. The City recently renewed its commitment to stopping gun violence by providing additional funding to our Blueprint partners who are providing community services and prevention programs across the community,” said Champaign Mayor Feinen in an email.