Thieves stole more than 1,000 firearms from gun stores across the country in just over one week this spring, according to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. The ATF says thefts of gun stores are on the rise.
To put that in perspective, that haul between May 28-June 5 would have accounted for nearly one-fifth of the roughly 5,600 guns reported stolen in all of 2019.
Thomas Chittum, ATF deputy director for field operations, says a lot of that appears to be tied to unrest around the country in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
“The spike was marked,” he said. “It was the most gun store burglaries in a short period of time that I have ever seen, that ATF has ever seen.”
Chittum’s agents are investigating more than 90 thefts or attempted thefts from May 28-June 5 alone.
In at least a few instances, peaceful protests ended with looting of businesses, including gun stores, according to the ATF. However, Chittum said there has been an upward trend all year and that the unrest alone does not explain the upswing. And that has ATF officials concerned.
“In addition to the initial crime that occurs, the robbery or burglary of the gun store, there are ripple effects when guns are stolen because they're used in other crimes,” he said.
Chittum said most of the thefts are smash and grabs — a brick through the window, forcing open a door, even driving a car through the front of a store.
After a similar spike in 2017, the ATF suggested guidelines for gun stores to secure their wares. Today, Chittum says, he’s still focused on shop owner outreach.
That’s because as of right now, education is one of the few prevention tools the ATF has. There is no federal law requiring gun store owners to secure their shops. Former ATF Agent David Chipman says that’s a problem.
“For decades, ATF and even the gun industry itself has encouraged dealers to act responsibly and secure their firearms,” Chipman said. “But they haven't and criminals know that.”
Chipman is now a senior policy adviser at the gun control group Giffords, which supports legislation to require gun store security measures. Chipman says there should be minimum security standards, like the ones required of federally insured banks.
“The public has a right and a responsibility to make certain that the industry is protecting this unique type of property that can be used lawfully and unlawfully,” he said.
Lawmakers have tried. A bill introduced in the U.S. House last year would have required gun store security measures like alarms, locked cabinets and security gates. But it didn’t go anywhere. The gun lobby has consistently opposed such requirements, though it encourages store owners to protect their shops.
“We're in this environment where any regulation of the gun industry is viewed by lobbyists as somehow an infringement on people's rights,” Chipman said.
Despite the ATF’s concern over the spike in gun store thefts, it is unlikely that these incidents are the main supplier of firearms ultimately used in crimes.
Philip Cook, a professor emeritus at Duke University who studies how guns get into the hands of criminals, says that surveys of inmates incarcerated for crimes involving firearms suggest the crime gun supply chain works in different ways.
“The typical answers cover a wide number of different types of transactions, but only about 4% of them report that they stole the gun that they used in crime,” he said.
Cook said most guns used in crimes were purchased at a store, though that doesn’t mean the person who uses the gun in a crime was allowed to possess one in the first place.
“It's almost always true that when they were new and first sold at retail, that sale was legal,” he said. “So they start off their career — so to speak, if a gun can have a career — as a legal sale and then they change hands in different ways.”
Cook says part of the problem with tracking how guns get to criminals is a lack of available data. Part of that is by design, as gun rights groups have successfully fought against a national firearms registry.
It also means law enforcement may devote too many resources to fighting gun store thefts at the expense of getting better data on the gun-to-crime pipeline.
“Some of the speculation, including by prominent police chiefs,” Cook said, “has been way off the mark in terms of claiming that stolen guns account for most of the problem.”
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.