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Why Has Gun Ownership Spiked In McLean County?

Carleigh Gray
Gun-rights supporters at the March For Our Lives rally in downtown Bloomington in March 2018.

Have you become a first-time gun owner in the past few years? We’d like to speak with you for an upcoming story on GLT. Share your story.

Gun ownership is on the rise in McLean County.

Nearly 1 in 5 McLean County residents has a firearm owners ID card, according to Illinois State Police (ISP) data. The number of McLean County FOID card holders has more than quadrupled since 2010, rising to 34,388 this year, ISP data show.

McLean County’s rate of gun ownership slightly outpaces the statewide average, though the steep rise since 2010 is mirrored elsewhere downstate, such as Sangamon and Champaign counties. Illinois’ list of FOID holders has grown by 100,000 every year since 2008, up to 2.1 million today, according to ISP.

The big question is why.

One simple factor may be a change in state law in 2008, making FOID cards last 10 years instead of five. That’s kept more FOID cards active.

But that’s not the biggest reason, said Richard Pearson of Chatsworth, president of the Illinois State Rifle Association, who helped engineer the 10-year FOID card.

“(Gun owners) also feel that society is kind of unraveling,” Pearson said. “They hear these stories about people who commit crimes—heinous crimes like rape and murder—and they always seem to get off. And so they’re interested in taking care of themselves or their families or loved ones, because they no longer have faith in the system. And I think that’s probably the main driver.”

The rising number of FOID holders in three central Illinois counties. Data from the Illinois State Police.

To be sure, a single break-in or brush with crime could lead anyone to buy a gun. But Pearson’s theory runs contrary to data showing violent crime in the U.S. has fallen sharply over the past quarter century. Property crime has also declined significantly over the long term. Yet as the Pew Research Center and other studies have found, public perceptions about crime often don’t align with the data.

Illinois is hardly the gun-friendliest state in the U.S. It only began offering concealed carry licenses in 2013—the last state to do so—and only after the courts forced it to.

That new access to concealed carry is another driver behind the growth in FOID holders, said Pearson. To get a concealed carry license (CCL), you must also have a FOID card, in addition to completing 16 hours of training, including classroom and range instruction.

There are 3,527 CCL holders in McLean County, or around 1 in 10 FOID holders and 2 percent of the overall population, ISP data show. That’s on par with concealed-carry trends in Champaign and Sangamon counties.

Students at guns rally
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Students at Normal Community High School during a walkout demonstration March 14, 2018.

The controversy around guns itself may also be driving up interest in owning them.

While former President Barack Obama raised grave concerns about guns with each mass shooting that came and went, his administration never accomplished substantive gun control reform. But that didn’t stop gun-rights supporters from stoking fear, said Mark Walsh, campaign director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence.

“If you look back at the rhetoric that was coming up from the pro-Second Amendment organizations and the gun manufacturers, it was that there was such a threat nationally with President Obama to take away your firearms—that he was going to knock on your door personally and confiscate your guns,” Walsh said. “Obviously that never happened.”

From the other side, Pearson saw something similar.

“We saw it start taking off under President Obama. It just sort of rocketed,” he said.

The same was true in Illinois, where Gov. Pat Quinn (in office from 2009 to 2015) was in favor of assault weapon and large capacity bans, and increased background checks, Walsh said. Indeed, the number of FOID holders has jumped statewide from around 1 million in 2008-2009 to 2.1 million today, said Pearson. That’s around 16 percent of Illinois residents.

“Some of it was raising fears among gun owners that this was gonna happen, and you should go out and make sure you’re able to purchase as soon as possible,” Walsh said.

Pearson explained the psychology behind it.

“For a long time, people felt the Second Amendment has been under attack, and everybody kind of took it for granted. I think many more people then wanted to own a firearm,” Pearson said. “We see this constantly in all parts of the state and the U.S. People are becoming more aware of gun ownership and they want to become an owner too.”


Just like other parts of the country, the rate of gun ownership varies within McLean County depending where you live, ISP data show.

In the 61761 ZIP code for Normal, only 11.7 percent of residents in 2016 had a FOID card, below the countywide average that year of 17.7 percent. The same lower gun tallies were found in the 61704 and 61701 ZIP codes in Bloomington.

In rural areas, gun ownership is more common. In the 61725 ZIP code in northwestern McLean County that includes Carlock, around 579 of 1,629 residents have a FOID card—or 35.5 percent. That’s among the highest in McLean County.

The varying levels of FOID holders in different ZIP codes in McLean County. Data is from 2016:

“I’m not really surprised, honestly,” said Carlock Mayor Jeremiah Houston, who recently ran for McLean County Board as a Republican. “It’s a more conservative community.”

Houston said Carlock is a “good, friendly community where kids hang out with one another and neighbors try to be neighbors.”

Guns are not a huge topic of discussion, he said, although there are flare-ups. The Carlock volunteer fire department faced criticism earlier this year for raffling off four guns—two handguns and two rifles—as a fundraiser, around the same time as the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Other communities do similar raffles.

“Gun control—it’s really a touchy subject,” said Houston. He said he’s considering bringing a gun-sanctuary resolution to his village board, similar to the one recently passed in Farmer City and other Illinois communities.

Houston said he personally believes people and their poor choices are to blame for gun violence, not the weapons themselves. But those with mental illness shouldn’t be allowed to have guns because they “have no idea what type of choices they’re making,” he said.

“Do I believe there needs to be tighter regulations on the gun itself? No. Do I believe there needs to be tighter regulations on having access to a gun? Absolutely. A convicted felon, somebody with severe mental illness—they shouldn’t have that access.”


There are a few caveats with the State Police’s FOID data. There are 34,388 FOID holders in McLean County in 2018, out of around 172,000 residents. But that 172,000 residents includes children who are less likely to get a FOID card, meaning the 19.9% of residents with a FOID card may actually be an underestimation. (A minor can apply for a FOID card with a parent or legal guardian sponsor.)

"We saw it start taking off under President Obama. It just sort of rocketed."

Another caveat: Just because you have a FOID card doesn’t mean you actually own a gun. It just gives you permission to own a gun.

“I’d say about 99 percent of them do,” Pearson said.

There are not many states like Illinois that require a person to have any sort of card or license or permit to own a gun, said Lindsay Nichols, federal policy director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Most states only require a person to have a permit or license if they’re going to carry it in public, Nichols said.

“There is a lot of good evidence that those states that require a permit to purchase a (gun) … that has a very strong effect on homicide and suicide rates, and gun trafficking,” she said.

There are so many FOID holders in Illinois that the State Police is asking those who obtained 10-year cards in 2008 to submit their renewal applications early. More than 50,000 FOID cards are due for renewal between June 1 and Aug. 1.

“We expect tens of thousands of renewal applications to come in over the next few months,” said ISP Director Leo Schmitz. “We recommend gun owners get their renewal applications in at least one to two months in advance so we have adequate time to process them and get a new card out before expiration.”

Applicants can visit the ISP’s Firearm Services Bureau website to renew.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.