CHICAGO — It took days to figure out where all the bullets flew when a man licensed to carry a gun exchanged shots with a masked 16-year-old boy and killed him on a busy street in Oak Park last year.
Investigators counted about a dozen shell casings outside a bank on Madison Street, according to police reports. They dug bullets from the man's Buick Regal.
The teen was the only person hit that sunny spring morning as bystanders scattered inside cars and crouched behind a telephone pole. One of the bullets traveled across the street into an office building. It apparently came from one of the shots the man fired over his shoulder as he ran away.
The man, who worked for the Chicago Park District, was released within hours after a prosecutor determined over the phone he had fired in self-defense. Nothing was said about him randomly shooting behind him, even though an investigator later questioned the action. And nothing was reported to the Illinois State Police, even though they oversee the training and licensing of concealed carry holders.
The state police know nothing about the nearly 40 shootings by people with concealed carry licenses since Illinois became the last state to allow them four years ago.
A Tribune review found that most of the shootings have been in public places in the Chicago area, and half the cases have involved concealed carry holders firing to defend themselves or someone else from robbers. At least 11 people have been killed, including a man with a license who tried to fend off carjackers on the West Side.
The state police have not collected any information that might improve the training of license holders and possibly better protect them and the public -- a reform suggested by police and gun instructors interviewed by the Tribune.
"That's not our role," explained Jessica Trame, chief of the Firearms Services Bureau for the state police. "We have to abide by the concealed carry act. ... We issue cards; we revoke those cards from those who are prohibited from having them. And if they are not prohibited, there's no other action on our side."
The state police do not even keep a list of shootings by concealed carry holders.
The Tribune combed through police files, court records and news reports to compile its own list. The analysis shows that:
- Most of those shot by CCL holders have been armed robbers. Others include carjackers, a burglar with a crowbar, a robber with a gun to a clerk's head, neighbors, an ex-girlfriend, a father-in-law, an unarmed teen stealing a Jeep, a passenger in a car during a road rage attack and a naked man acting "aggressively."
- They were shot by homeowners, customers, security guards, store clerks, a Chicago police dispatcher, a Chicago fire lieutenant, a Chicago Park District worker, a tow-truck driver and the owner of a West Side cellphone store.
- The shootings took place at currency exchanges, phone stores, a driveway between two homes, parking lots, a party, a Loop McDonald's, a West Side church, a block where children played and a downstate gun range.
In one case, a police officer ducked for cover when a CCL holder fired two shots at a fleeing robber outside an AT&T store in southwest suburban Crestwood. In another, a security guard at the McDonald's hit a doorframe while firing at a customer who had grabbed the guard's pepper spray and lunged at him.
Lt. Matthew Boerwinkle, a spokesman for the state police, said problems with concealed carry holders are few and there is no need for more oversight or transparency.
"You rarely hear of an instance where a CCL holder is using their firearm in an unlawful manner," he said. "They're generally law-abiding citizens, and they've gone to great lengths to get to where they're at to have a CCL. And they've taken training to get there. And most of them, they understand what the requirements are to use force to defend themselves."
But the state police cannot support those conclusions because they do not have any data on whether CCL holders have been adequately trained for the situations they have met.
It's unclear if any state does. The last official survey of concealed gun permits in the United States was in 2011 by the Government Accountability Office, two years before Illinois' law went into effect.
The GAO estimated there were more than 8 million concealed carry permits but included no information about training and public access to records. The Crime Prevention Research Center, a conservative think tank, estimated last year that the number has grown to 16.3 million permits.
In Illinois, more than 265,000 people have licenses, about 2 percent of the adult population. The law prohibits the release of any information more specific than how many CCL holders are in each ZIP code.
At least 20 states offer more access to concealed carry records than Illinois, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In only a few states can the public see disciplinary files.
The Violence Policy Center, which supports gun control, said it had to rely largely on news reports to compile a list of fatal shootings involving concealed carry holders because Illinois and many other states bar release of such information.
The center said it found more than 1,200 deaths across the country since 2007 that did not involve self-defense. They included suicide, murder-suicide and cases where CCL holders were charged or convicted of murder.
"We need the information to evaluate whether the system is working," said Kristen Rand, the center's legislative director. "The statutes were put in place with the idea that they're going to make the public safer. We should measure whether that's actually the case."
When guns are drawn
Cook County, the state's most populous county, has nearly 74,000 CCL holders. But it's in the smaller, rural counties where being licensed to carry a concealed firearm is much more common.
In Pope County at the southern tip of the state, more than 6 percent of the population of 4,300 is licensed. The county is squarely in the Shawnee National Forest, an area known for hunting.
Just north in Wayne County, the state has granted licenses to more than 5 percent of the population. The town of Mill Shoals has 142 residents, 22 of them licensed to carry. That's 15.5 percent.
At the other end of the state, there are ZIP codes in Chicago where more than 1,000 CCL holders live. The highest concentration per population — 3.3 percent — is in Mount Greenwood on the Southwest Side, where many police officers and firefighters live. In more than half the city ZIP codes, the rate is less than 1 percent.
To get a license, you must be at least 21 and have a valid Firearm Owner's Identification card. You can't 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.
An arrest with charges later dropped does not disqualify you. Fingerprints are not required.
You also must undergo 16 hours of training — usually a weekend — and have hit 21 of 30 targets at close range. To renew a license, required every five years, a person must take a refresher course that covers gun skills.
Few shootings were reported in the first years after the state began issuing licenses in January 2014. Two the first year, three the second year and six in 2016, according to a Tribune review.
But last year the number ballooned to at least 19, most of them in Chicago. In December, there were four shootings in the city in just 10 days, two in one day, according to police reports.
So far this year, there have been at least eight shootings involving CCL holders. Three were reported in a single week in March.
It not clear what's behind the increase, but it may be that people are becoming more comfortable carrying and using guns in public.
"It takes a while for people to start getting their licenses and having a critical mass of people carrying weapons," Rand said. "People feel more comfortable carrying their guns ... and as time goes by, they've had more opportunity to use them."
In Illinois, many CCL holders told officers they feared for their lives or others', but the police reports also document guns drawn in anger. In only a handful of cases have prosecutors filed charges, all of them last year.
- Last fall, Robert E. Witt, 37, was arrested at his job at a downstate truck stop with a loaded gun on his hip. He was accused of firing the gun months earlier at his wife and was charged with reckless discharge of a firearm. No one was hit, though a crime scene photo showed the bullet exited the home directly over a pink children's ride-on toy. Witt told officers he had "seen green in his head, which to him means that it's safe to take the shot," according to an investigator. Bloomington police filled out a clear and present danger form and seized Witt's concealed carry license.
- On an 80-degree summer day, Keli McGrath, a Chicago police dispatcher in her late 40s, became embroiled in a road rage incident with an 18-year-old mother of two who was in a car with her kids and her 12-year-old brother. The teen threw soda on McGrath from an open window, and the two women pulled over in a parking lot on Ashland Avenue in Bridgeport. The teen grabbed McGrath by her hair and shoved her. McGrath pulled a 9 mm from her leather holster and shot the teen in the chest. The teen was taken to a hospital in critical condition. McGrath was charged with aggravated battery.
- Early one morning last September, Lyft driver Jaleesa Rance picked up two men from the Sidetrack nightclub in Lakeview. They started arguing when one of the men said she had taken a wrong turn, according to police. Rance stopped her car, pulled a Smith and Wesson handgun from the center console and told them to "get out of my (expletive) car." As they left, she yelled a gay slur and said, "I'll blast you." She was charged with aggravated assault and unlawful use of a weapon, but was acquitted. Lyft later made clear their drivers are not to have weapons in their cars.
- Several others have been charged with reckless discharge of a weapon or reckless conduct: a man shooting at "gangbangers" no one else saw, another man shooting into his kitchen floor, a homeowner firing into the air during a party and a judge in DuPage County pulling the trigger of what he thought was a empty gun, sending a bullet through a neighbor's wall.
The rest of the cases reviewed by the Tribune were found by investigators to be justifiable self-defense.
The Cook County State's Attorney's Office, which has handled most of the CCL shootings in the state, would not elaborate. "We don't discuss charging decisions," spokesman Robert Foley said.
He would not say if there were any cases where police disagreed with prosecutors.
When legal is still dangerous
Of the cases cleared by prosecutors, the Oak Park shooting best illustrates how a legal shooting can still pose a threat to public safety.
About 11:15 a.m. on May 27, a 24-year-old man parked around the corner from the U.S. Bank branch at 11 Madison St. and withdrew $260 from the ATM. What happened next is detailed in a stack of witness statements and forensics reports:
The man got back into his Buick Regal as a black BMW tore out of the bank lot, sped down the alley and cut him off. Damon Phillips, 16, jumped out wearing a mask and holding a gun in his hand. The man grabbed his own gun from the center console, and the two fired at each other.
Phillips was hit several times and fell to the ground. The man ran across the parking lot and fired over his shoulder. A couple in a car ducked under the dashboard, a man from Wisconsin hid behind a telephone pole and yelled "Get down!" to a woman driving into the line of fire.
Three days later, Oak Park police got a call after someone noticed a bullet hole in a second-floor window across the street. The bullet pierced a metal frame and glass half an inch thick. Officers traced the trajectory and concluded it was fired by the man as he ran away. They never found the bullet.
One of the investigators in the case agreed with prosecutors that the shooting was justified, but he felt there were things the CCL holder could have done differently to minimize the risk to himself and others.
After firing at the armed robber, the CCL holder told detectives he took off running across the bank parking lot but heard gunfire behind him, so he shot over his shoulder into the air.
"He felt that might make the others stop shooting at him while not putting innocent people in harm's way," the investigator said, asking that he not be named. "Me, I would've tried to get cover behind a parked car and return fire from a crouched position."
Police reports indicate no one went over this point with the CCL holder, and nothing was reported to the state police.
Months later, the same man was charged with hitting his girlfriend as she was driving a car with her twin infants in the backseat. A handgun and an AR-15 assault-style rifle were seized from his home. The charges were later dropped, and the man petitioned for his guns back.
The rifle was not returned because Chicago bans them. Since the charges were dropped, nothing was reported to the state police.
Reached by the Tribune, the man's father did not want to talk and said his son has since left the state and also would have no comment.
Phillips' mother, Mecka Pierce, said she doesn't defend her son's actions but still has questions about the man's decision to fire his gun.
To her, the issue is simple: If her son was guilty of robbing someone, the sentence would not be death. "You're concealed to carry. You're not concealed to kill people's children with zero consequences."
How to make carrying safer
The Oak Park investigator believes one way to make CCL holders better and safer is to require 40 hours of training, more than twice what is required now. Those extra hours would include more situational training.
"I tell people you need to be ready all the time," he said. "Every minute you need to be ready, thinking about how you would react if this or this or this happened, in case something pops off. It's running scenarios through your mind every time you're out."
Instructors who have taught classes in Illinois the last four years say the same thing. Generally, they argue for more hours, more live-fire training and more one-on-one basics at the gun range.
Some instructors were troubled by people who appeared eager to shoot at someone, raising questions whether the screening process is strenuous enough.
"I think it's great that people can defend themselves and it can be good for crime prevention," said Sara Ahrens, who was in the U.S. Army and stayed on as a reservist when she began working as a Rockford police officer before retiring in 2014. "But I'm not sure the average concealed carry person thinks it through how that situation is going to unfold."
She speaks from experience.
Ahrens was on the force less than two years when she fatally shot a man who came at her with a knife. Months later, a woman raced at her with a butcher knife, but dropped it seconds before Ahrens had to decide whether to pull the trigger.
"Even as close as she was, I still felt like, at that time, I might miss," Ahrens said. "It's a life-or-death situation, and you don't want to make a mistake on that."
She believes applicants should go through scenarios where they must make tough choices. For example, an applicant should have to pull their weapon and see how long it takes to get a shot off.
Ahrens also favors the state police reviewing shootings with CCL holders and requiring more training when needed.
She noted that police officers, who undergo hundreds of hours of training — including exercises on when and when not to shoot — routinely undergo reviews by independent agencies whenever they use their gun. She doesn't see why the same routine shouldn't apply to concealed carry holders.
Brian Gard, an Army veteran who worked for Brinks and now teaches a gun course for Condition Yellow Academy, said about 20 percent of his students changed their minds about getting a license when they fully understood the ramifications of carrying a gun.
"The general public is a scary thing," he said. "And I have bullet holes in the ceiling and in the floor to prove it."
He tells students to imagine their watch falling into a shark tank at feeding time and asks whether anyone would jump in after it. Then he changes the example and has a baby falling into the tank. That helps clarify to students when a gun should be used: when a person's life is on the line, not when his or her property is at stake.
"If we want to be involved, we can choose to be a good witness or be helpful in ways that don't involve a weapon," he said. "If it's not worth dying over or going to prison over, don't get involved because those are very real outcomes."
Valinda Rowe with IllinoisCarry, a supporter of the right to carry guns, worries that more restrictions or oversight could leave people with less protection.
"These are real hardships for the people in the city's poorest neighborhoods, which happen to be the highest in crime," she said. "The people who, I feel, are most in need of a concealed carry license are the ones who have to find the resources to pay for all the training and the license and then travel outside (Chicago) city limits to practice shooting their weapon."
The worst of states, the best of states
Groups like IllinoisCarry and the National Rifle Association give low marks to the state's concealed carry law. They often cite the fact that Illinois had to be ordered to pass the law by the federal courts after every other state had done so.
Last year, the magazine Guns & Ammo ranked Illinois as one of the worst states for gun laws (40th), citing the "extensive training required." It liked Arizona best because the governor had just signed a bill preventing local governments from enacting background checks.
At the same time, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and other groups that advocate tougher gun control listed Illinois as having some of the better laws in the country.
The law center ranked Illinois as the eighth best state and gave it a B+, singling out "strong" background checks. In its rankings, the state was surrounded by 2 C-minuses (Wisconsin and Iowa), a D- (Indiana) and an F (Missouri).
But these rankings reflect virtually nothing about who holds a CCL in Illinois or what they have done with their guns.
As in dozens of other states, Illinois will not say who applied for a license, who got them, who didn't and why. Some police departments will say whether a person involved in a shooting has a FOID card or a concealed carry license. But if they don't, it's impossible to find out from state police.
The agency also will not disclose why nearly 3,400 people have had their concealed carry licenses revoked or suspended. The reasons could range from the license simply expiring to a person carrying a gun while drunk.
It is similarly secretive about objections that can be filed by local law enforcement when there are concerns about an applicant's criminal history or mental health.
Objections are often overruled, and the state police will not publicly release any information on why.
Many law enforcement agencies don't even file objections. The state police did not get a single objection from about 40 percent of the state's 102 counties. Most of the other 60 or so counties have filed fewer than five objections over four years.
"I don't think I ever have put a (objection) letter on anyone," said Darby Boewe, the sheriff of Edwards County in southeast Illinois. "I've taught a lot of the people here who've got their permit. Believe me, if I had one sticking out as unqualified or mentally unfit, I'd be reporting them."
Boewe said he depends on CCL holders to fill the gaps as state police patrols have been cut back.
"I've told these people, 'You may be my backup if I get pinned in,' and they understand that and they take it serious," Boewe said. "I've never had the first complaint about someone trying to act like a cop and, you believe me, we're clear with them that they better not get to acting above the law."
The situation is markedly different in Cook County, where last year the sheriff's office filed more than 1,050 objections. So far, 394 of the applications have been approved and the office has yet to hear about more than 600 others.
Cara Smith, chief policy officer for Sheriff Tom Dart, was clearly frustrated at the large number of permits issued over the office's objections. Reviewing applications, and in many cases filing objections in vain, "detracts resources from our ability to combat gun violence in the city or to our other police work we're doing."
One case in particular underlines that frustration.
The office had filed an objection against a man whose profile photos on Facebook showed him flashing what appeared to be gang signs. In one of the photos, he had a gun tucked in the waistband of his jeans as he sat on the hood of a car.
The seven-person state review board issued him a CCL anyway. In 2015, one of his weapons was taken away after an arrest for theft. Court records show he asked for the gun back — and his request was granted.
A week before Christmas last year, he drove to the parking lot at a McKinley Park Target store and met Jermaine Marshall, 21, who had arrived by Lyft, according to the police report.
Marshall walked up to the CCL holder's car, and the Lyft driver heard shots. The holder sped off, leaving Marshall dead on the pavement, police said. Officers caught up with the CCL holder, who told police he had intended to return to the scene.
He said he was the victim of a robbery and has not been charged, though police say he remains under investigation. The state police have not been notified, and so there is nothing in their records about the shooting if the man chooses to renew his license.
The first renewals begin next year.