Former Air Force reservist Michael Thomas says he doesn't know why a special review board denied his application for a concealed carry license. (Alex Garcia, Chicago Tribune / May 20, 2014)

After taking a firearms training course, paying a host of fees, and submitting fingerprints for a background check that he ultimately passed, Michael Thomas was puzzled when he was notified earlier this year that a special review board had denied his application for a concealed carry license.

Thomas, a former Air Force reservist who said he routinely carried a gun during military service and has never had a run-in with the law, is one of more than 800 people who have been denied licenses by the board, which meets behind closed doors and keeps its records and reasoning secret, even from applicants who are denied.

Figuring that his was a case of mistaken identity, Thomas wrote to the Illinois State Police to request a review of the decision.

"I have never been arrested or convicted of any offense, either misdemeanor or felony, in the state of Illinois or any other state," Thomas said in his letter. "I have no criminal record of any type."

But the state police, in a letter responding to his appeal request, didn't say why he was denied, and told him that the board's decisions couldn't be reviewed and that he would have to petition a court in order to appeal.

So Thomas joined 193 other Illinoisans who have filed lawsuits against the state police to try and peel back the secrecy of the decision-making process.

The state police review every application and can automatically deny any applicant who does not follow application rules, pay appropriate fees or meet standard background requirements. A provision in the law also allows local police and other officials to object to a person's application after the applicant has passed a fingerprint background check and met the other requirements for a license.

The Concealed Carry Licensing Review Board, a panel with law enforcement backgrounds, considers the objections in private and is not required to explain the reasons behind its decisions except under order from a court, according to the state police's interpretation of the statute.

Officials won't say why Thomas' application was flagged for denial, or by whom. Thomas insists that he has a clean record. A search of Cook County court records turned up no charges. An Air Force spokesman told the Tribune that Thomas was honorably discharged in 2012 and that his military record does not contain any unfavorable information.

The lawsuits, including two backed by the National Rifle Association, claim that applicants were denied due process because they weren't given a reason for the board's decision and have no recourse for challenging its findings. Lawyers involved in the cases say the issue is not whether applicants are qualified for the licenses, but whether the licensing process is too secretive and arbitrary.

"There are law-abiding citizens in the state of Illinois who are fully eligible to carry, and they are denied the right and not given any notice as to why," said David Thompson, a Washington, D.C., attorney hired by the NRA to file companion lawsuits in Illinois state court and U.S. District Court. "We want a process established that gives people notice of what evidence the state used to make the determination … and an opportunity to rebut by putting in their own evidence."

The NRA-backed lawsuits ask the courts to vacate the denials and offer any other remedies the courts deem proper.

Some gun-control advocates, however, view the wave of lawsuits as an effort by pro-gun advocates to loosen restrictions in the state's concealed carry statute, which was hastily cobbled in the General Assembly after a U.S. appellate court struck down the concealed carry ban in December 2012.

Law enforcement review was a compromise needed to get the law through the legislature, according to representatives from both sides who were involved in the debate.

"It's the NRA's game plan across the country. When there's not legislation pending, they file lawsuits," said Mark Walsh, campaign director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. "They never liked this part of the bill. But in a lot of communities, local law enforcement knows a lot more about whether someone should have a concealed carry permit. They know if they're going to someone's house every two weeks on a domestic violence call."

Federal law prohibits convicted felons and convicted domestic abusers from obtaining firearms. Illinois takes the additional step of denying concealed carry licenses to those who have been convicted of a misdemeanor involving the use of force or violence, those who have had two or more violations related to driving under the influence, or those who have been in residential or court-ordered treatment for substance abuse, each within five years of applying for the license.

Additionally, the law compels state police to refer for review any applicant who has five or more arrests within the past seven years or more than three arrests on gang-related charges.

The law also allows county sheriffs, state's attorneys, local police and the attorney general to raise objections "based upon a reasonable suspicion that the applicant is a danger to himself or herself or others, or a threat to public safety." The review board investigates the objections and makes a final decision. The law stipulates that the board's meetings are not subject to the Open Meetings Act and its records are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Applicants denied by the board receive a two-paragraph letter from the state police, which informs them that the board "has determined by a preponderance of the evidence" that the person poses a risk, and that any appeals must be directed to the applicant's local circuit court.

A Tribune review of about two dozen lawsuits found that some plaintiffs have had brushes with the law.