Stolen Guns: Why You Should Worry


Nobody knows how many guns are stolen every year, but most studies say there are a lot. Every time a gun is stolen an armed criminal is created.

Do you remember Chuck Connors, the star of the TV show “The Rifleman”? Chuck Connors knew his way around guns. But he was worried enough about stolen guns to make a special public service announcement: “Remember,” he said, “A stolen gun threatens everyone.”

You can sure say that again Chuck. Hundreds of thousands of stolen guns threaten everyone a lot more.

In the past few years, several jurisdictions, and at least one state, have voted down laws requiring the reporting of stolen guns. Apparently a lot of voters fear that by reporting their gun stolen, they will now be on a government list as “known gun owners. “

If you don't believe some people think like this, take a look at the Internet.

There are a number of sites for private citizens to report and look for their stolen guns, outside of the mad, intrusive and property-seizing government. One video in particular on these sites is my favorite.

The man simply says that if he finds the guy who stole his rifle, he will kill him. I hope he doesn't think you stole it.

People who work to defeat any gun law, reasonable or not, will tell you that mandatory reporting will make criminals out of law abiding people.

They say that many a good citizen will let the fact that their gun was stolen slip their mind. When that happens, they will also forget to report it stolen. Don't you see? Now they will have violated the law and become criminals themselves.

Perhaps you didn't realize that there are a lot of people in this country who would actually forget that their gun was stolen.


Although federal law requires you to be licensed to import, manufacture and sell firearms, the government can't make you do an inventory on your guns.

That's right: doing inventories is not required.

To be fair, many licensees have exacting inventory procedures, including twice daily inventories. But a troubling number only find that firearms are missing when they get a federal inspection.

A report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency that regulates the firearms industry, showed that in 2012, almost twice as many firearms were lost by licensees than stolen. 10,915 to be exact.

The very people we license to safely manage firearms sales keep losing them.

A lot of gun owners and law enforcement officials don't really know how to clearly identify an individual firearm. It is not common knowledge that the same firearms serial number can appear on many different guns.

Also, more than one set of numbers can appear on an individual gun. These numbers can include patent and part numbers, manufacturer codes, and advertising. So how sure are you that you found the serial number anyway?

And, even if you are good, millions of guns manufactured and imported into the U.S. before 1968 bear either no serial number, or ones that were openly duplicated.

Trumping this is the fact that on millions of firearms the other important identifiers appear on interchangeable parts. Change a part here or there, and the gun suddenly can't be traced. Firearms marking requirements haven't been effectively updated in almost fifty years.

In this country, since the late 1920s, there has been a strong push against national firearms registration.

National registration, the holy grail of “slippery slope” believers, would actually help a lot of legal and decent gun owners get their stolen guns back. It would provide a viable national system that would require accurate and complete firearms identification. It would allow law enforcement agencies locate the true owners when they recover guns.

Interestingly, at the national level, certain firearms have been under required registration since 1934. The recent Supreme Court interpretation of the Second Amendment doesn't seem troubled by registration. And millions of gun owners have lived with it for almost 80 years.

However, an untold number of people still believe that the federal government can't be trusted to not go to a hundred million or so households and seize lawful gun owners' guns.

Without registration and mandatory reporting, only estimates, or what might be called “educated guesses,” can be used to attack the problem of stolen guns. Law enforcement officials and policy makers are forced to work off statistical estimates from studies.

Mark Twain said that there are three kinds of lies, and one of them is statistics. How accurate are these studies anyway?

Let's assume they are. In one recent and highly regarded study, it was “estimated” that approximately 1.4 million guns were stolen in the U.S. between 2005 and 2010. Yes, 1.4 million! A yearly average of 232,400 newly armed criminals?

This estimate is probably too low.

Although the numbers came from a respected national survey of criminal victimization, there were no questions specifically about guns, or guns stolen.

Hmmm. So even if the respondents had a gun stolen, and they were among the folks who either aren't afraid to—or didn't forget to—report guns stolen, they may still not have stated that a gun or guns were taken because it was never asked.

This survey also says that guns were taken in only 4 percent of the burglaries reported by the respondents. 4 percent? Really?

Guns are one of the top four things burglars want to steal. If you make it 8 percent, which is not unreasonable, we are at half a million guns stolen each year!

You should worry.

The singular national, and federally managed, crime statistics gathering program called the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) doesn't capture stolen gun statistics.

An enormous amount of valuable data on real crimes and victimizations is collected from a majority of law enforcement agencies around the U.S. under the NIBRS program.

And that information is used widely to develop policy and describe the state of crime in the U.S. But when it comes to data on stolen firearms, we are flying blind.

Budget and staffing cuts for law enforcement agencies have impacted the tracking of stolen guns. The good news is that these agencies have access to the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, files and can share stolen and lost gun information with their approximately 18,000 partners around the country and, through gateways, around the world.

The bad news is that the crush of immediate management of public safety creates competition for time and resources to perform non-emergency data entry and searches on non-violent property crimes.

That includes guns.

The system is clearly not being used to its full potential. As a result, your law enforcement agency may never learn that your stolen gun was recovered.

Some law enforcement agencies from time to time seem to lose track of their guns. This includes not only seized guns, but also duty-carry guns, which often are stolen from government vehicles and homes.

Recently, the Washington Post reported that a federal agency had lost track of hundreds of firearms that they had taken into evidence. Later, you might expect, the agency reported that they had determined where almost all of them are. You don't suppose, “lost”, do you?

When guns are stolen from interstate shipments there is no requirement for anyone to report the thefts. These guns can just disappear. Although federally licensed dealers must report the theft of guns from inventory, when they ship a gun somewhere, the rules are off.

And do you think there is incentive for carriers to tell the world that they lost guns from one of their shipments? Think again.

Reporting is strictly voluntary and hardly successful. Keep in mind that thousands of guns get shipped in the U.S. each year. And unknown numbers get stolen. Do you remember hearing about any of them?

Guns are used in crime every day in the U.S. We know that.

What we don't know is how many criminals got a free, or virtually free, gun with which to move from being a thug to being an armed criminal.

It's time to take stolen guns seriously and to look into the gaping holes we have in this country that minimize the concern over gun theft.

Benjamin Hayes recently retired as Special Agent, Chief, Law Enforcement Support Branch, National Tracing Center of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). He welcomes comments from readers.

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