SPRINGFIELD - Even though Illinois has among the nation's most restrictive firearms laws, hundreds of retired police officers, now private citizens, are quietly being licensed to carry concealed weapons.
Unlike Missouri and 46 other states, Illinois has a blanket prohibition against concealed weapons. But under little-known federal and state laws, ex-police officers can avoid that ban and dozens of local ordinances on how, when and where someone may carry a handgun.
Some 900 ex-cops are licensed to carry a concealed weapon, state officials say, through law enforcement agencies from which they retired or from the state-administered Illinois Retired Officers Concealed Carry program. They don't carry badges and can't make arrests, but they enjoy a special loophole in one of three remaining states - along with Wisconsin and Nebraska - that have no concealed-carry laws.
For some officers, especially those who finished a career filled with dangerous criminals, a pistol can provide peace of mind.
Retired Alton Police Chief Bill Fitzgerald gave an example: In 1980, when he was a homicide detective, Fitzgerald put a man in prison who'd committed five murders. The man, and others, threatened to come after Fitzgerald. After 26 years, he's up for parole and could be out at any time.
"You never know when you're going to run into somebody like that," Fitzgerald said. "What are they going to do you? There are officers out there who've worked in undercover capacities, and they have people who would probably want to cause them some harm."
Fitzgerald, who has a concealed-carry permit, says he's never had any problems with criminals while he's been off-duty or retired. But he spoke for many ex-officers who say they feel more secure knowing that if they're confronted by an unsavory character from their past, they'll be ready.
Stephen Springer, a former Fairview Heights chief of police who also applied for the conceal-carry permit, agreed.
"For people who're coming out of positions where they're street-level, or they're hands-on officers and they're dealing with hard-core criminals on a regular basis, that is a very legitimate concern," he said.
Thanks but no thanks
Still, most former officers have no desire for a concealed weapon, said Thomas J. Jurkanin, executive director of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, which is responsible for overseeing Illinois police officers who want concealed-carry permits.
"There are some police officers who've figured they've carried a gun long enough, and they don't want to be around guns anymore," Jurkanin said.
That is the case with Capt. Mel Weith, of the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, who said he didn't think he'd want to carry a gun when he retired from law enforcement.
"I just don't see a need for it," he said.
So many retired officers agree, critics say, that that there's no need to provide them with a blanket opportunity to get a weapon.
"It's too broad," said Tom Manard, executive director of the Illinois Campaign Against Handgun Violence. "As opposed to saying, 'Let's let every officer have a gun,' why not say, 'Let's be sure it's done based on their history,' or potentially with approval from their final commanding officer. There may be retired officers out there and their peers would say, 'He's the last person I want having a permit for a concealed weapon.'"
Manard said his group was not completely against letting retired police officers carry weapons. But he said gun advocates could use the law to build a case for licensing retirees from other professions, such as former security guards or private investigators, neither of whom may now carry a concealed weapon in Illinois.
Because gun regulations are often changed with little public attention - as with the ex-officer concealed-carry law - it could happen any time, Manard said.
The loophole was produced by a 2004 federal homeland security law that, among other things, gave all retired police officers the option to continue carrying a weapon.
Congress included the weapons provision in a broader homeland security bill. And as with many such federal initiatives, it made state governments responsible for filling in the details. So last spring, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill sponsored by state Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, giving the Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board responsibility for overseeing officers who wanted concealed-carry permits.
The state's gun administrators say they're confident the system permits only stable, qualified people to carry guns.
Applicants must be able to prove they've had at least 15 years of police experience and have a valid state-issued firearm owners identification card. They're almost always highly proficient with guns after careers in law enforcement, said Roger Richards, who oversees the program for Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board in the Metro East area. They must take a shooting test that gauges accuracy and familiarity with their weapons, and they must re-qualify for their permits every year.
That's intended to ensure that aging former officers can still safely carry a pistol into their 70s and 80s, said Fitzgerald, who administers the weapons tests.
"A person's skills could deteriorate very quickly," he said.
If officers can't re-qualify for another year's concealed carry permit, or choose not to, they still can keep guns in their homes so long as they maintain a valid firearm owners identification card.