Last year gun owners and sellers reported about 190,000 missing firearms to police, according to a new federal audit.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) published data on lost and stolen firearms in response to an executive order by President Barack Obama in January. The report represents the nation’s first state-by-state account of missing firearms available to the public.
“It describes what really is an epidemic of lost or stolen guns,” said Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “That’s a lot of extra guns on the street and in the hands of criminals.”
About 96 percent of the missing guns listed in the ATF report were stolen. The vast majority were from private individuals, not licensed businesses, such as dealers or manufacturers.* About a third came from just five states: Texas, Georgia, Florida, California and North Carolina. None of those states require private gun owners to report a missing firearm.
It’s worth noting that federal law does require gun businesses with federal licenses to report missing firearms within 48 hours. In those instances, the ATF data are more accurate and detailed. Overall, ATF recorded 15,813 lost or stolen firearms from licensed gun businesses. About two-thirds were lost rather than stolen.
Gerney co-authored an issue brief this month that argues for the ATF to require all federally licensed gun dealers to reconcile inventories with sales receipts at least once a year -- something that would need Congressional action first. Prior to working for the Center for American Progress, Gerney oversaw Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of more than 900 mayors that promotes policy reforms such as universal background checks and limits to ammunition clips.
“I think [the report] needs to be put in context,” said Lawrence Keane, assistant secretary and general counsel at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the gun industry. The number of guns that are stolen each year is likely to be much higher, Keane said, referring to a widely cited survey by the U.S. Department of Justice that suggests it’s closer to 500,000. However, even half a million stolen guns represents a small fraction of how many guns are sold, manufactured and imported in the United States every year, he said. (The ATF estimates that about 6.5 million firearms were manufactured and another 3.2 million were imported in 2011.)
The National Shooting Sports Foundation encourages its members to take precautions in protecting merchandise, such as installing window bars, roll-down gates, smash-resistant glass in display cases, burglar alarms and motion detectors. Although rare, gun sellers can be targeted for burglaries, Keane said. In March several suspects were arrested for allegedly injuring a Michigan gun shop owner and stealing firearms from the store.
“They’ll rob them because they know there’s money and firearms,” said Mark Willis, a spokesman for ATF.
Although the ATF report sheds light on the incidence of missing guns, particularly those from thefts, the data are imperfect. Not all gun owners tell police when their guns are missing and even when they do, police may choose not to file a report with the FBI. The report also notes that the FBI did not screen the entries for duplicates or instances where a gun was later found or recovered. Nonetheless, the data might “give states and cities the information they need to pass laws and take other effective steps to make sure that lost and stolen guns are reported,” the bureau said in a written statement.
Prior to 2013, seven states and the District of Columbia had laws requiring gun owners to report missing firearms. In May, Maryland joined those states after Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a new gun-control package. Earlier this month, Delaware also enacted a reporting provision.** Some municipalities maintain versions of those state laws, such as Sacramento and Pittsburgh. Lawmakers who sponsor reporting requirements often cite the need to combat straw purchasing -- where people who can legally purchase a gun sell their weapon to someone who would fail a background check.
The report does not explain how criminals manage to steal from licensed gun businesses. Jim Morganthall, a store manager at Just Guns in Parkville, Md., said it's probably not happening at the shops. “All your losses are going to be at a gun show,” he said. At gun shows, criminals have a better chance of lifting small guns from a vending table, he said. The ATF does suggest that at least half of missing guns for licensed businesses are some type of handgun -- though 4,905 rifles and 2,415 shotguns also disappeared.
Keane, of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said he hadn’t heard complaints from licensed gun dealers about thefts at gun shows, but “it’s a different environment. That’s possible, I suppose.”
*This story has been updated to reflect that licensed gun businesses refers to more than just gun dealers, but also manufacturers, collectors and importers.
**This story has also been updated to reflect that Delaware joined the group of states that require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms.
Lost or Stolen Firearms: 2012 data
The spreadsheet below details firearms reported to be lost or stolen in every state and the District of Columbia.
|State||Total Lost or Stolen||Reported Stolen||Reported Lost|
|District of Columbia||7,324||7,165||159|
Source: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives