Editorial: Gun thefts feed violent crime, but inane federal laws make it hard to confront the problem

An ATF agent poses with homemade rifles at an ATF field office in Glendale, Calif. on Aug. 29.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

American gun owners reported losing more than 237,000 firearms to thieves last year, according to federal stolen-property statistics obtained by The Trace, a nonprofit journalism site. That’s a whopping 68% increase over a decade earlier. Yet the key word in that sentence is “reported,” because an unknown number of gun owners never inform police that their weapons have been taken.

A complete and accurate tally of stolen guns would seem to be a statistic worth compiling, as would a record of the makes, models and serial numbers of the stolen guns flowing into the black market. But even the 68% increase in stolen weapons carries an asterisk: It’s unclear whether the year-to-year statistics are drawn from the same set of agencies. That such information isn’t gathered, or is gathered so unreliably, is a reflection of our nation’s bizarre and counterproductive gun laws.

But wait, there’s more. Using a separate database of crime victim reports that includes the value of stolen items, Harvard-based researchers reported in April that as many as 380,000 firearms may actually be stolen or lost each year — most of them weapons owned by people in the South. Nationally, the most vulnerable are people with large personal collections, those who frequently carry their firearms in public, or those who don’t properly and safely store their firearms. Cars are a prime target — that National Rifle Assn. 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.


Congress should rescind laws that bind the hands of researchers seeking a better understanding of the causes and effects of gun violence in American society.

Why should anyone care whether a gun owner is the victim of a theft? Because those stolen guns often get used in violent crimes or passed on to people whose criminal or mental health histories make them ineligible to own a gun. But again, because of absurd restrictions placed by Congress at the behest of the NRA and the rest of the gun lobby, there has been very little research into who steals such firearms, where they go, and how many violent crimes they might be used in. (One study found that 40% of state prison inmates possessed a stolen or otherwise illegally obtained gun at the time of their crime.)

California is an outlier here. Voters approved Proposition 63 last year, requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen weapons within five days of the loss, or when they realize the gun is gone. But California is one of only 11 states with such rules. 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 oversight 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.

But in most states (not California), the initial buyer could have resold the gun without reporting the sale to the government. Or the gun could have been stolen, or lost, with no record kept of the loss. So it not only is a needlessly slow process, if police do trace a gun used in a crime to the initial buyer, they often hit a dead end. That is absurd.

The gun lobby argues (unpersuasively) that most gun laws penalize law-abiding owners. But some fixes do not hinder legal access to firearms and could make it harder for criminals to obtain stolen guns. The solutions range from requiring guns to be stored in a way that deters thieves, to mandating biometric or other personally exclusive gunlock systems, to imposing standardized security requirements on gun shops. At the very least, Congress should rescind laws that bind the hands of researchers seeking a better understanding of the causes and effects of gun violence in American society. Reasonable minds can agree on such things. The question is, are we a nation of reasonable people when it comes to guns?

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