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Better Ways to Target Stolen Guns

Stolen and lost firearms are much more likely to be used in crimes, but when it comes to penalties and requirements for reporting thefts and losses, state policies are all over the map — if those policies exist at all.

Confiscated guns
Guns confiscated from gang members on display during a press conference held by Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez on Jan. 4, 2022. (Lev Radin/Shutterstock)
An average of about 200,000 firearms are stolen in the U.S. each year, more than 95 percent of them from gun owners’ homes and vehicles. That’s nearly 550 guns a day and it is likely an undercount because not all victims of firearm theft report it to law enforcement.

They’re not necessarily breaking the law: Only 15 states and the District of Columbia require victims of firearm theft to report it to law enforcement. Not only should all states make that a requirement, but there's a lot of room for the existing laws — and their implementation — to be improved.

Recent research documents that stolen or lost guns are much more likely to be used in crimes. We also know that stolen firearms can be sold or exchanged into the illicit market, making it easier for those who are otherwise prohibited from purchasing a gun to obtain one.

The states with laws requiring owners to report stolen and lost firearms within a specific period of time have done so for a variety of reasons, including deterring straw purchasing. Requiring immediate reporting (within a few days of discovering loss or theft) gives law enforcement more opportunities to investigate a “hot” case, which might improve firearm recovery chances. These laws may also help by encouraging safe and secure firearm storage.

Unfortunately, opportunities to improve the laws have been missed and ways of enhancing the implementation of existing statutes haven’t been addressed. In a recent report by our organization, the National Policing Institute (NPI), an analysis of the laws reveals inconsistencies and shortcomings in design and implementation features that likely limit the laws’ effectiveness.

The good news? There are ways to improve, and it may not be too difficult to do. Let’s start with civil fines, which is what most of the laws establish as penalties. Massachusetts, for example, sets the fine ceiling at $1,000 for first offenses. At the other end of the spectrum, Colorado’s law sets the first-offense penalty at just $25.

You’d have to look hard to find a first-offense penalty with teeth, and while some states provide more progressive penalties, with higher fines for subsequent offenses, the reliance on civil fines may not be much of a deterrent, especially given the likelihood of enforcement in an era of limited resources.

Oregon takes an interesting approach that is worthy of consideration by other states. In addition to a fine, its law provides the potential for enhanced civil liability by creating a “presumption of negligence” for those failing to report if the stolen or lost firearm is used to injure a person or property.

As part of NPI’s analysis, many law enforcement officials across the U.S. saw penalties as reflections of the priority level and seriousness of the offense. Many raised concern over doing more to enforce these laws at a time when agencies are experiencing short staffing and other limited resources and some have even been forced to stop responding to some 911 calls.

Another variation across states is reporting timelines. Some require a theft or loss to be reported as soon as it is discovered; in other states, you have up to seven days. If the laws aim to deter and prevent gun-related crimes, shouldn’t reporting be required as soon as possible?

Maryland and Massachusetts require sellers to notify purchasers of their responsibility to report stolen or lost firearms, but most states don’t require that purchasers be made aware of the laws.

At least five states define what must be reported. Hawaii’s law, which also requires reporting when a firearm is destroyed, specifies that stolen or lost firearm reports include the manufacturer, model, caliber, serial number and any identifying marks.

But gun owners, myself included, won’t be surprised to know that many people don’t know or remember these details. Some states have found creative ways to address these implementation challenges, including through “Save-A-Casing” programs that not only help owners keep better records but give them an envelope to hold two spent cartridge casings that can be used to improve investigation and recovery chances using ballistics imaging.

For more recommendations specific to policymakers, law enforcement leaders, federal authorities and communities, give our report a read. After all, the issue at hand isn’t a partisan one. It’s a public safety issue, and don’t we all want excellent public safety?

Jim Burch is president of the National Policing Institute. A former senior executive in the U.S. Department of Justice, he served as the deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Justice Programs and acting assistant director at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He is a senior fellow at the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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