The issue of gun ownership has returned to the forefront after mass shootings at a Las Vegas country music festival in October and in a Texas church last month. Most of the concerns revolve around restrictions on gun purchases and who can own what type of weapon.
Things could get a little murky from a legal standpoint if you happen to inherit a gun from a loved one. In This week’s Friday Forum, we look at the case of a Rockford woman who found herself in such a situation.
Holli Connell takes out her gun at her Rockford home and notes the design detail near the grip, which has a little carving of a squirrel. She says that’s why she and her brothers affectionately referred to the .22-caliber rifle as “the squirrel gun.” She says she inherited the gun from her father after he died unexpectedly from surgery complications a few years ago.
“You know, it’s funny,” she said. “I don’t actually really think of myself as owning a gun. It’s really just a keepsake from my father, is what it means to me.”
Connell only shot the gun once just for fun at a family farm property shortly after her father died. After that, she says, she put a lock on it and stored it.
“It was, I think, just more sentimental for me to do it, and then I put it away,” she said.
Things could have been complicated if Connell had not already had a Firearm Owners Identification – or FOID – card, when she inherited the squirrel gun, especially since her father’s death was unexpected.
“One day, my husband said, ‘We should get a FOID card,’” Connell recalled, “and I’m like, ‘Cool,’ and we did. It’s really the only reason why I own a FOID card; I guess it’s my right, so I did it. So I didn’t think anything of it when I received the gun, because I own a FOID card.”
There are a handful of people in Illinois who would not be eligible for a FOID card right off the bat, even if they inherited a firearm. That’s according to Mark Jones, director of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence. He also is a former Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms federal agent.
“Convicted felons, people who have renounced their citizenship, illegal aliens, drug addicts or abusers, people who have been adjudicated with a mental illness and involuntarily committed [to a mental health institution], domestic abusers,” he recited the list. “There’s, I think, nine categories.”
Other categories include being dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces or being under a restraining order, according to the Illinois State Police Firearms Services Bureau website.
Connell says she didn’t do much beyond getting the FOID card when she inherited the gun, since none of those forbidding categories applied to her. She said her mother died before her father, and she and her brothers technically inherited their father’s estate.
“In Illinois, the only thing I know about Illinois law is that you don’t actually transfer – you don’t have to have a permit for a gun, because you have to have the FOID card,” she said. “I didn’t actually consider doing anything else besides putting a gun lock on it and putting it away.”
The fact that Connell's father didn’t have a will at the time he died still made things a little more complicated regarding technical ownership of the gun.
“If my dad actually had a will, there would be an executor. There would be somebody that would be overseeing the property,” Connell said. “And because of that, that person would then own my dad’s belongings … but then they would have to transfer the gun to me.
“But my dad didn’t have a will, and his stuff just came to me, so my dad couldn’t transfer the gun to me – hence, why I really haven’t investigated much further on what to do. I just thought keeping it safe and keeping it put away was my best option.”
That … along with the proper state authorization.
“No matter what type of firearm, as long as it is a functioning firearm and has a proper serial number and so forth, we’re only concerned with whether or not the individual has a valid FOID card,” said Matt Boerwinkle, a master sergeant and Public Information Officer with the Illinois State Police.
He says anyone with a valid FOID card can possess firearms from a relative’s estate, but he still advises gun owners to think ahead when it comes to who actually would inherit the firearm.
“One thing we always recommend to persons that own firearms is to have a will and to outline in that will or delegate who is supposed to take responsible possession of the firearm, should they pass,” Boerwinkle explained, “and annotate that with make, model and serial number of the weapon to be transferred to another individual.”
But if a gun is nonfunctioning and will be used more as a display, Boerwinkle says a FOID card might not be necessary for someone who inherits that piece.
“So if a firearm is rendered inoperable – you know, the bolt permanently removed or trigger mechanism or whatever the case is where it becomes permanently inoperable – at that point, it’s just basically a show piece,” he said, “so it really ceases to exist [as] a functioning firearm at that point.”
Boerwinkle says one living person who wants to give a gun to another living person can do so by submitting a transfer notification on the Illinois State Police Firearms Services Bureau website. He says both parties would still need FOID cards.
Former ATF Agent Mark Jones says any firearm inheritances that cross state lines – say, if a relative from Illinois dies and a family member from Wisconsin inherits the gun – are also subject to the other state’s laws.
Correction (12/13/17): Connell's gun is a .22 caliber rifle, not a shotgun.