Gun thefts feed violent crime, but inane federal laws make it hard to monitor and confront the problem.
American gun owners reported losing more than 237,000 firearms to thieves last year, according to federal statistics obtained by the Trace, a nonprofit journalism site. That’s a whopping 68 percent increase over a decade earlier. Yet the key word is “reported,” because an unknown number of gun owners never inform police that their weapons have been taken.
An accurate tally of stolen guns would seem to be worth compiling, as would a record of the makes, models and serial numbers of the guns flowing into the black market. But even the 68 percent increase carries an asterisk: It’s unclear whether the year-to-year statistics are drawn from the same agencies. That such information isn’t gathered more reliably is a reflection of our nation’s counterproductive gun laws.
There’s more. Using a separate database of crime victim reports that includes the value of stolen items, Harvard researchers reported in April that as many as 380,000 firearms may actually be stolen or lost each year — most in the South. Nationally, the most vulnerable are people with large personal collections, those who frequently carry firearms in public, or those who don’t properly store their firearms.
Cars are a prime target — that National Rifle Association sticker tells gun thieves they may find pay dirt in the glove compartment. So are homes carrying signs warning that “this house is protected by Smith & Wesson” — they may as well post a sign that says, “Hey, gun thieves, check this out.” Gun shops also make for natural targets, yet there are no federally mandated standards for securing such arsenals.
Why should anyone care whether a gun owner is the victim of a theft? Because stolen guns often get used in crimes or passed on to people whose criminal or medical histories make them ineligible to own a gun. But again, because of absurd restrictions placed by Congress at the behest of the gun lobby, there has been little research into who steals firearms, where they go and how many violent crimes they might be used in. (One study found that 40 percent of state prison inmates possessed a stolen or otherwise illegally obtained gun at the time of their crime.)
And though federal regulations require federally licensed gun dealers to report stolen or lost inventory, shop owners are not required to conduct annual inventory checks to determine whether they have lost firearms. That needs to be fixed. Nor does federal law require individual gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms, another oversight that needs to be addressed.
Similarly, there is no federal database of gun sales to help track down the owners of recovered weapons. If police pick up a gun at a crime scene, they request a trace from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, whose investigators then contact the manufacturer to find out which dealer received the gun. Then they ask the dealer to scour shop records — the government is barred from keeping these records itself — to learn who bought the gun.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES