A collection of AR-15s on sale at a December 2023 gun show
A collection of AR-15s on sale at a December 2023 gun show / Stephen Gutowski

Analysis: Another Failed Gun Registration Effort [Member Exclusive]

We found out this week few people in Illinois complied with the state’s registration requirement, but that’s the outcome that should have been expected.

Just one percent of Illinois gun owners registered now-prohibited AR-15s and similar firearms before the state’s ban officially took effect, according to updated data from the Illinois State Police. In total, 29,357 individuals out of 2,415,481 active Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID) card holders registered 68,992 firearms, 42,830 “accessories,” and 528 entries for “ammunition” by the time the window closed at the end of the year.

That’s almost certainly lower than what lawmakers were hoping to achieve with their sales ban and registration scheme. The fact that so few went along with the plan, despite the threat of potential criminal penalties, suggests a concerted effort on the part of many gun owners to engage in civil disobedience against a law they opposed from the start.

It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. When New York expanded its existing assault weapons ban to include mandatory registration requirements with the 2013 SAFE Act, only an estimated four percent of affected gun owners actually registered their weapons with the state in the years after the law went into effect. When Connecticut enacted its assault weapon ban and registration mandate following the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, the state estimated that 372,000 prohibited weapons were in civilian hands. By the close of its registration period the next year, the state had received only around 50,000 registration applications. Similarly, a 2018 iteration of California’s assault weapon ban requiring registration for existing owners was met with just a 3-5 percent compliance rate, according to an estimate by the Firearms Policy Coalition.

Most recently, when owners of pistols equipped with stabilizing braces were given a choice to either register them with the ATF, surrender them, or face federal felony charges, only somewhere between 0.6 and eight percent of estimated brace owners agreed to register them before the ban took effect last year.

Even internationally, gun registration and confiscation initiatives have faced massive compliance shortfalls. New Zealand’s 2019 semi-automatic gun ban and confiscation mandate collected less than half of the estimated stock of affected firearms in civilian hands, and Canada’s ongoing quest to mimic those efforts is facing similar reluctance on the part of gun owners.

Of course, it’s inherently difficult to estimate how many people comply with a registration or round-up of an unknown number of firearms. And there may be reasons beyond principled opposition to the underlying law that lead some gun owners not to comply, such as a lack of knowledge about the law’s enactment or how to follow it.

It’s impossible to say with total certainty how much of Illinois’ low registration count can be attributed to intentional non-compliance. The state requires all gun owners to be licensed under the FOID card system, not just those in possession of “assault weapons.” It stands the reason that not every FOID card holder in the state-owned a weapon or accessory covered by Illinois’ new hardware ban, leaving those gun owners exempt from being required to enter a registration affidavit in the first place.

The state also lacks concrete data on the number of previously legal firearms and accessories that were in civilian hands at the time of the registry window. Melaney Arnold, a public information officer for the ISP, told The Reload that the agency had no information on “how many FOID card holders have items covered under the Protect Illinois Communities Act.”

However, there are several reasons to think that the registration count was as low as it seems at first glance, regardless of the caveats of the FOID system.

One is simply that the AR-15, the primary target of the state’s ban and registry, is the most popular rifle in the country. Recent survey data indicates that around 24.6 million Americans own at least one AR-15 or similar rifle. And while no state-specific survey data exists, a crude adjustment of that number based on Illinois’ share of the national population suggests just under 918,000 AR-15 owners reside in the Land of Lincoln—a total that far exceeds the 29,357 who registered anything with the state.

Furthermore, Illinois’ assault weapon ban extends well beyond AR-15s to include more than 170 semi-automatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns by make and model, as well as other unnamed weapons that include certain cosmetic and ergonomic features. A basic semi-automatic handgun that happens to have a threaded barrel, for instance, or a semi-automatic hunting shotgun that has a pistol grip or adjustable stock could easily fall under the ban’s criteria, greatly expanding the pool of firearms affected and, by extension, the gun owners who would need to register them.

Finally, the lack of widespread registration came against the backdrop of law enforcement leaders in the majority of the state’s counties loudly declaring that they had no intention of enforcing the law against otherwise lawful gun owners. That, coupled with the uncertainty over the law’s constitutionality prompted by gun-rights lawsuits and the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision, could easily have swayed gun owners to take their chances by not going along with the state’s demands.

Regardless, civil disobedience in the face of gun bans paired with registration or even confiscation has clearly been a constant theme among gun owners. The experience of Illinois’ assault weapon ban rollout and registration scheme met the same fate as most similar efforts have before it.

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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