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Who’s watching? More people licensed to carry guns in Illinois are using them, but oversight is still lacking

Chicago Tribune

Monday, September 9, 2019  |  Article  |  Annie Sweeney and Katherine Rosenberg Douglas

Guns and Gun Control, FOID, Concealed Carry (46)

Who’s watching? More people licensed to carry guns in Illinois are using them, but oversight is still lacking

Instructor Gerald Vernon, of Personal Protection Consultants, speaks of the different types of holsters, during a conceal carry license class, at 2548 E. 83rd St., on Saturday, July 11, 2015. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune) (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)

They were friends and family from the old neighborhood gathered to celebrate the passing of one of their own.

 

An argument broke out. Police say a woman chased down her boyfriend and fired a small pink gun, missing him but hitting another man talking on the corner. The errant bullet killed Andrew Owens, an aspiring model who loved his family, traveling and dancing and could devour plates of food without gaining a pound.

 

"Prior to all this, we were all friends," lamented one of his cousins.

 

The woman had a license to carry a concealed gun. Over the next several days in August, there would be two other shootings by people with concealed carry licenses: The killing of a man during an argument near a Southeast Side playground, and the wounding of a man in a West Side backyard after he “balled up his fists” and started swinging at the homeowner.

 

The number of concealed carry license (CCL) shootings has been steadily rising over nearly six years since it became legal to carry a handgun in Illinois — along with concerns that a lack of rigorous oversight is resulting in more shootings that are not justified. There have been more than 60 shootings by CCL holders, 23 in just the last year, according to a database compiled by the Tribune.

 

Concealed carry license holder Matarimo Houpe has been charged with the murder of Andrew Owens.

Concealed carry license holder Matarimo Houpe has been charged with the murder of Andrew Owens. (Chicago Police Department)

— Last November, a man with a CCL despite a record of domestic abuse opened fire at Mercy Hospital, killing his ex-fiancee, a pharmacist and a Chicago police officer before he was killed.

— Last month, a 75-year-old homeowner in Lake County fired into a group of teens, after one of them allegedly moved toward him with an object in his hand. The homeowner shot a 14-year-old boy in the head, killing him. The man said he was just trying to scare them away. A knife was found at the scene.

 

— Two CCL holders have been charged with murder: Matarimo Houpe, who opened fire during the funeral gathering; and a man who stalked his wife and shot a man she was with, according to police reports.

 

— At least two CCL holders have been shot and killed in Chicago over the last year after they pulled their guns to protect themselves. Other shootings include a woman who wounded a man helping someone get into her locked home. In Aurora, a man shot another man who had insulted his girlfriend, police said. And in McHenry County, a driver pulled out a gun during a road rage incident — an episode cited by a gun rights group as “the type of behavior that makes the rest of us concealed carriers look bad.”

 

Explore: Shootings by CCL holders in Illinois since concealed carry law went into effect in 2014. »

These and other CCL shootings reflect a new reality in Chicago: In a city already awash with illegal guns, thousands of people are legally carrying firearms and are increasingly willing to use them.

 

 

 “It seems that there is this new social norm that if I have a firearm, I am authorized to pull this gun out and use it — even if I am not in danger,“ said Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

 

A Tribune investigation into CCL shootings in 2018 showed that the Illinois State Police, the agency responsible for issuing firearm owner identification cards and concealed carry licenses, did not keep track of shootings by people licensed to carry guns.

 

Little has changed. The state police still don’t keep records on when license holders fire their weapons, how often they do it, or if they wound or kill someone.

 

"We need to hold people accountable if they are unlawfully or unsafely using firearms,” Crifasi said. “If we don’t, they will continue to behave in an unlawful and unsafe manner.”

 

 

‘She said she shot at the tires’

In a picture taken just 15 minutes before he was shot and killed, Andrew Owens leans close to three cousins with a casual pose and a wide distinctive smile.

 

After losing his mom at a young age, Owens stayed with the family of his cousin Kiona Grant, 37, who was a teenager at the time and helped care for him. The bond became a powerful one, she recalled.

 

“He made me the mom I am,” Kiona said. “He helped me to be unconditional with people.”

 

On Aug. 14, an extended group of Owens’ family and friends gathered at a family apartment at 61st Street and Indiana Avenue for a repast for his cousin-in-law, who had been killed in a hit-and-run accident in July.

 

Matarimo Houpe was downstairs with a larger crowd that had gathered on the block, a cousin said. Houpe had grown up in the same Bronzeville neighborhood, in the former Ida B. Wells Homes, and knew Owens.

 

They had people and a neighborhood in common. Houpe had lived for a time in the same building on Indiana as Owens’ family.

 

More than 34,000 Illinoisans have lost their right to own a gun. Nearly 80% may still be armed. »

Just before the shooting, Owens went downstairs to join the group on the block and heard a commotion. Houpe had gotten into a heated argument with a man she had a relationship with, according to prosecutors.

 

Owens tried to calm Houpe down, telling her, “We’re not here for that,” family members told the Tribune. The man arguing with Houpe got into a car and started to drive away. Houpe turned to her sister and asked for her handgun, prosecutors said. “Mickey," she allegedly said. “Give me my s---.”

 

Houpe’s sister reached into her waistband and handed Houpe a gun, prosecutors said. “The defendant raised the pink gun and extended her arm and shot twice," prosecutors said.

 

By then the car had turned off the block. Owens, who was standing at the corner of 61st and Indiana, was hit instead, shot in the left eye. Houpe later told police “she shot at the tires of the car ... and then she saw (the victim) fall.”

 

‘More comfortable carrying guns’

Houpe was charged with first-degree murder.

The only other CCL holder known to be charged with first-degree murder in Illinois is Darnell Hurt, who is accused of shooting 32-year-old Labriel Lee on Aug. 18 last year in Chicago’s Fuller Park neighborhood, according to the Violence Policy Center, which maintains data on 1,300 shootings by CCL holders.

 

Hurt tracked his wife’s cellphone to the 5200 block of South Wells Street and saw her driving with Lee, according to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. He cut the two off and boxed them in with his car, prosecutors said. He ordered Lee out of the car and, accusing him of having an affair with his wife, fired a .45-caliber Springfield XD semi-automatic and killed him, according to investigation reports. Then he called 911 to report the shooting.

 

Column: I participated in a concealed carry class, and it reaffirmed why I would never own a gun »

Kristen Rand, the legislative director for the Violence Policy Center — a Washington D.C.-based group in favor of gun control — said she expects these kinds of “bad” shootings will increase in Illinois as time passes, based on what has happened in other states.

 

"In Illinois now that you’ve had (concealed carry) a few years,” she said, "it is similar to what you saw in Florida. The really bad things started happening after the law had been in place several years. It’s not overnight. It takes a while for people to start getting their licenses and having a critical mass of people carrying weapons.

 

“People feel more comfortable carrying their guns and feel somewhat more emboldened to use them," she explained. "And also, as time goes by, they’ve all individually had more opportunity to use them.”

 

But just as the Violence Policy Center tracks murders and suicides by CCL holders, gun manufacturers post stories and links about gun owners who fend off attackers. The Tribune’s review of recent CCL shootings found several where holders told police they fired at someone with a weapon.

 

Few states track shootings by CCL holders

To get a concealed carry license in Illinois, you must be at least 21, have a valid firearm owner’s identification card and undergo 16 hours of training. You cannot have been convicted of physical violence in the past five years or had more than two DUIs in the past five years or have any outstanding arrest warrants.

 

As of this month, there were 306,000 active concealed carry holders in Illinois, 40,000 of them living in Chicago.

 

Few shootings were reported in the first years: Two the first year, three the second and six in 2016, according to a Tribune review. Then in 2017, the number ballooned to at least 19, most of them in Chicago.

 

In June 2018, the Tribune published a comprehensive database of shootings at the hands of concealed carry holders in the state. It included 39 instances of a weapon pulled by concealed carry holders. In 34 of those cases, the CCL holder had fired a gun. The shootings resulted in 11 deaths.

 

Almost nothing is known about dozens of concealed carry shootings in Illinois. Why? »

Since the 2018 report, the Tribune counted 17 more CCL shootings in Chicago alone, including one where a CCL holder accidentally shot out a window in the Austin District police station after getting into an argument with several people. At least four other CCL shootings occurred elsewhere in Illinois.

 

The Tribune had to compile its own database because the state police do not keep a list of CCL shootings. The Chicago Police Department also does not keep track of such shootings.

 

The newspaper’s data — culled from police files, court records and news reports — include dozens of shootings where the CCL holders reported they were forced to defend themselves. But in some cases, the other person was fleeing when shots were fired.

 

Crifasi, from Johns Hopkins, said there is a significant lack of data on concealed carry shootings across the country, making it harder to understand how people are adjusting to being able to use deadly force to defend themselves. There is also a growing body of research suggesting a link between concealed carry laws and increased rates of violence — challenging studies done in the late 1990s that concluded more legal gun ownership reduces crime.

 

The Tribune examination found there is little or no review of CCL shootings in Illinois to determine whether holders were adhering to their training. It is not uncommon for a CCL holder to be released by police within two or three hours, even in fatal cases.

 

The cases are not referred to the state police unless there has been a conviction. That means the agency knows virtually nothing about shootings by CCL holders as the first licenses come up for renewal this year.

 

‘Lose everything in a blink’

Before Andrew Owens was shot and killed, some of his relatives had considered getting a concealed carry license. Losing Owens in such a tragic way has given them pause. They spoke of the shock at how quickly the situation escalated that evening.

 

“You can’t just use your weapon because you are arguing or someone said something to you,” Grant said. “You could lose everything in a blink of an eye for making decisions while you are angry.”

 

Another cousin added: “Just because you can conceal and carry doesn’t mean you have a right to fire a weapon. What we learn from this is before you act you must think. You must stop and think before you act out of anger."

 

Several firearms trainers have told the Tribune the 16-hour course they offer makes clear the inherent dangers of carrying a firearm and how critical it is to use it only to protect yourself or others.

 

But it is hard to definitively say what a person was taught during the 16 hours of training because the state did not adopt a standard curriculum, according to Lt. Joseph Hutchins, a spokesman for Illinois State Police.

 

It opted instead to allow potential instructors to submit their training guides for approval. A link to approved curricula provided by Hutchins listed hundreds of different training programs. There also is no set fee for the instruction, with the state allowing instructors to determine what they feel their program and their time is worth.

 

An Oak Park police officer who teaches concealed carry courses, for example, said his $400 course is four times as much as some others that might use a copied curriculum. But he said his price reflects his firearms expertise and, hopefully, attracts only serious students who he feels will pay attention and be responsible gun owners.

 

Valinda Rowe, of Illinois Carry, a website dedicated to helping state residents navigate the process of getting a concealed carry license, said she and her husband, Mike, have offered CCL training for 10 years for carriers in other states, always emphasizing “the common man principle.”

 

“Which is basically, what would the common man believe if he were in your situation? Is there an imminent threat to you or someone else, would the average person reasonably believe that his life was in danger? That’s what police, and potentially a jury, will want to know to determine if you’re justified in shooting,” Rowe said. "And even if you are justified under the law, even then, that still doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do.”

 

Figuring out whether pulling the trigger is the best thing to do in a tense, quick-moving situation is not easy. Some criminologists question whether an average person — even trained — can do this. The so-called “good guy with gun,” they said, is an oversimplification.

 

“It’s a caricature, really," said Adam Lankford, a professor at the University of Alabama who has studied mass shootings. "Sometimes the person who commits murder doesn’t realize they’re going to commit the murder until six seconds before it happens, and then it’s too late. But they were a good person until that point.”

 

Kiona Grant said she has attended part of a CCL class but is not yet licensed. She said her trainer drilled this message in their heads: “You have to be in imminent danger. You have to be able to prove your life is in imminent danger.”

 

But she said she understands now that this is hardly a guarantee.

 

“You can sit and teach these things," she said. "You really don’t know, once the person leaves your class, is the person going to do the right thing?”