Op-Ed: Stolen guns are enabling violent crime. Will Congress actually do something about it?

A custom-made semi-automatic hunting rifle with a high-capacity detachable magazine is displayed at TDS Guns in Rocklin, Calif. on Oct. 3, 2013.
A custom-made semi-automatic hunting rifle with a high-capacity detachable magazine is displayed at TDS Guns in Rocklin, Calif. on Oct. 3, 2013.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

In the early morning of July 5, NYPD Officer Miosotis Familia was killed by a gunman in an ambush attack while patrolling a Bronx neighborhood. Just weeks earlier, on the other side of the country, a UPS employee entered his San Francisco workplace armed with two guns and opened fire, killing three of his coworkers and injuring two others before turning the gun on himself. While seemingly unrelated, these examples of gun violence share one common feature: Both were committed with stolen firearms.

It a well-known fact of modern American life that we collectively own a massive number of guns — the best guess places the number at about 300 million. One of the risks inherent in this level of gun ownership is theft. Indeed, a new analysis by the Center for American Progress of data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that a gun is stolen in the U.S. every two minutes.

The ATF, which is responsible for oversight of the gun industry, has been particularly concerned about burglaries and robberies of gun stores, finding that the former have increased 48% and the latter 175% between 2012 and 2016. During this period, nearly 31,500 guns were stolen from gun stores.


But it’s not just gun stores that are targets for thieves. In 2015 alone, gun owners reported $164 million worth of guns stolen nationwide. Local police agencies have sounded the alarm about a rise in thefts from vehicles, urging gun owners to leave their weapons at home or lock them securely if they are left in a car.

Amazingly, under current law, the ATF cannot require gun dealers to even lock their doors.

These thefts represent more than financial losses to gun owners and dealers. Guns are both dangerous weapons and durable goods. Once stolen, they don’t simply disappear from the nation’s gun stock — they are transferred and traded in underground illegal markets and often end up used in violent crimes, like the slayings of Officer Familia and UPS employees Wayne Chan, Benson Louie and Michael Lefiti.

Like most aspects of gun violence in the U.S., there is much more that could be done to address this problem. Amazingly, under current law, the ATF cannot require gun dealers to even lock their doors. Certainly most gun store owners — like any other business owner who wants to make a profit — have implemented security measures to protect against theft. However, gun theft numbers make clear that we cannot solely rely on the industry to police itself.

Congress needs to give the ATF the authority to require gun dealers to take certain basic steps to secure their inventory. A good starting place is the bill Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) introduced this week, which would require gun dealers to store guns securely after business hours and would direct the attorney general to consider regulations regarding additional security requirements.

Congress also needs to ease other restrictions that impede the ATF’s ability to effectively oversee gun dealers — such as the appropriations rider that prevents the ATF from requiring dealers to conduct an annual inventory reconciliation — and adequately fund the agency so that it can conduct regular compliance inspections with dealers to help identify security risks.


There’s also more that policymakers could do to help prevent thefts from individual gun owners. Gun owners should be required — or at the very least incentivized — to lock up their guns when they are not in use. Not only would this measure help prevent theft, but it would also greatly reduce the risk of accidental shootings by curious children who find guns in their homes.

Policymakers can also improve data collection on how often guns are stolen and the circumstances of those thefts. In most states, gun owners are not required by law to report thefts to law enforcement. That makes the numbers available to the FBI a likely undercount and renders it difficult to accurately gauge the true scope of this problem or develop smart, targeted policy approaches to address it.

Everyone loses when guns are stolen: the gun dealer or owner who suffers a financial loss, law enforcement working to investigate crimes perpetrated with stolen guns, and communities victimized by shootings committed with these guns. A handful of states — including California — have stepped in to fill some of these gaps. Maybe this could be one place where Congress could set aside the usual maddening dynamics of the gun debate and actually get something done.

Chelsea Parsons is vice president of guns and crime policy at the Center for American Progress.

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