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Stolen guns a threat to community safety

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Mar 11, 2020 - 9:59:10 AM

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The numbers of stolen guns on the streets of America range between 265 and 393 million, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress (CAP).  While gun owners and gun dealers are responsible for protecting their merchandise from theft, unfortunately new data suggests that in states across the country, this is not happening.

“Stolen guns present a significant risk to community safety across the country,” said Chelsea Parson, vice president of Gun Violence Prevention at the center. “Guns are both dangerous weapons and durable goods that don’t just disappear once they are stolen. These guns far too often end up illegally trafficked or used in the commission of violent crimes. Gun owners and dealers therefore have a tremendous responsibility to take measures to help secure these weapons to prevent against their theft.”

The report released March 4 analyzed data between 2012 and 2017 and found an estimated 1.8 million guns were reported stolen from individuals nationwide, and another 53,900 guns were stolen from the inventory of gun dealers. 


These numbers are likely an undercount of the true number of stolen guns since gun owners in most states are not legally required to report gun thefts to law enforcement.

Researchers at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University found that the number of stolen firearms can be as high as more than half a million a year. 

The new CAP data is an update to a report published in 2017 looking at the scope and scale of stolen guns in the United States. It provides state-by-state breakdowns of the number of guns stolen from individual gun owners from 2012 to 2017, as well as the number of thefts from licensed gun dealers from 2012 to 2019.

“People are breaking into homes, stealing from gun shows and stores in Black and Brown communities,” Tony Salaam from Chicago’s Rapid Employment and Development Initiative (READI) told The Final Call.  This group works with young men at high risk for gun violence by either shooting or being the victim of a shooting.

“There are a lot of different entries for these stolen guns in our communities.  The impact is the murder rate is up.  There is trauma in our community, people are afraid to come out of their homes.  Children are imprisoned in their own homes.  Businesses leave the neighborhood, food desserts crop up, the economy tanks and this is the human and economic perspective.  These guns on the streets affect everything,” he said. 

In Philadelphia, illegal guns hit the streets another way.  “Stolen guns on the streets here are not the problem.  We have a problem with straw purchases. A would-be criminal will send a young woman or their girlfriend into a store to purchase a gun for them in the other person’s name.  Those are the guns on the streets in Philly,” Sheriff Jihad Muhammad told The Final Call.

“We don’t get a lot of crime from stolen guns.”

And it is not just from private residences where firearms are being stolen. A 2015 NBC Bay Area investigation into the loss and theft of police firearms uncovered more than 500 weapons had gone missing from eight different law enforcement agencies, including the California Highway Patrol, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and six local departments since 2010.

The investigation found that one of the stolen guns was later tied to a shooting death in San Francisco, the network reported. 

The Honorable Minister Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam has said that the Second Amendment has little relevance in modern society, stating that the constitutional right to bear arms is outdated.

“See, the right to bear arms was given at a time when there was no regulated militia to protect America,” he said. “But now you have police well-armed, you have state troopers well-armed, you have the National Guard and you have federal troops.”

He explained that one reason Americans are buying weapons is their anger at the government.

“Look at the American people’s thoughts about Congress. What is the percentage of the American people that feel that the U.S. Congress is doing a good job? Eleven percent,” said Minister Farrakhan. “Then 89 percent of the American people are angry, disaffected, dissatisfied with their government—and you’re selling them weapons of war and the militias are multiplying.”

“This nation has been built on violence,” he said. “Uncivilized, uncultivated, brutal, wild…and that’s why the prophet gave America one of those names as a beast — both of the book of Daniel and in the book of Revelations.”

With any mere mention of enacting more gun-safety guidelines or measures on a federal level sparks pushback from gun enthusiasts who argue it is an attack on their rights as law abiding citizens. Earlier this year, thousands converged in Richmond, Va., for a pro-gun rally in response to plans by the state’s Democratic leaders to pass gun-control legislation in response to mass shootings including one that occurred in Virginia Beach. Nearly 22,000 people reportedly attended. But with a country that has more guns that people (390 million guns compared to 329 million people) there is legitimate concern about the consequences of guns being stolen and getting into the hands of criminals.  

American gun owners, preoccupied with self-defense, are inadvertently arming the very criminals they fear, wrote Brian Freskos in a 2017 article titled “Missing Pieces.”

“Gun theft from legal owners is on the rise, quietly fueling violent crime across America,” he wrote.

The CAP report explained that in 2019, six law enforcement officers in Alabama were fatally shot in the line of duty, the highest number in more than 30 years. Five of those shootings were committed with guns that had been stolen from their owners. 

In April 2019, a man who was prohibited from gun possession because of a felony conviction attacked a Veterans Affairs hospital in Chicago, firing shots with a semi-automatic rifle that had been stolen from a gun dealer in Indiana.

More recently, in January of this year, a man in Austin, Texas, was shot and killed with a gun that had previously been stolen from a home in a nearby community. 

“The available data only show a small piece of a national problem,” said Eugenio Weigend Vargas, associate director for Gun Violence Prevention at the Center. “Policymakers and gun owners need much more information about the kinds of guns that are being stolen, the primary ways that they are being stolen, and where they are ending up in order to most effectively address this growing problem.”

The report also outlines several realistic policy proposals at both the federal and state level to reduce or prevent gun thefts, including requiring gun dealers to implement stronger security measures; enabling the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to conduct more oversight of gun dealers; improving data collection on gun theft; and requiring or incentivizing gun owners to store their firearms more securely.

Policymakers should consider the following: 

Enact federal and state legislation to require gun dealers to implement minimum security measures, such as securely storing guns after business hours and installing alarm systems and cameras.

Eliminate the restriction on ATF’s budget that prevents the agency from requiring licensed gun dealers to conduct an annual inventory reconciliation in order to ensure that all of their dangerous inventory is accounted for.

Provide ATF with additional resources to conduct more frequent gun dealer compliance inspections.

Implement laws or policies that require or incentivize gun owners to store firearms securely.

Enact federal and state legislation requiring gun owners to promptly report all stolen or lost guns to law enforcement.

Improve data collection and reporting on gun theft

According to the Centers for Disease Control counting murders and suicides, nearly 40,000 people died of gun-related violence in the United States in 2017, the highest annual total in decades. 

The Pew Research found that a significant share of Americans (44 percent) say they personally know someone who has been shot, either accidentally or intentionally, according to the spring 2017 survey. A majority of Black adults (57 percent) say this, compared with 43 percent of Whites and 42 percent of Hispanics. 

Separately, about a quarter of Americans (23 percent) say someone has used a gun to threaten or intimidate them or someone in their family. There is again a racial gap: About a third of Blacks (32 percent) say this, compared with 20 percent of Whites. About a quarter of Hispanics (24 percent) say this has happened to them or their family members.

Something also must be done with the people who have access to these guns, argue public safety advocates. 

“Our program, READI, takes these people who are most vulnerable for either shooting someone or getting shot and changes the trajectory of their lives.  We work with them to show them a different way of living,” Mr. Salaam said.  

READI engages participants in 18 months of paid transitional employment with regular participation in cognitive behavioral therapy, skill-building, and support services, plus an additional six months of follow-up case management and coaching support.

“If we just leave them alone, they will continue to be a danger.  We have to step in and intervene to save them as well as our community.” (Final Call staff contributed to this report.)