Stolen Guns: Who’s Responsible?

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Photo by Rod Waddington via Flickr.

Last summer, police in Normal, Ill. learned of an 80-year-old man with 80 guns. But the ones missing from his home mattered most.

Two of the man’s relatives had just been picked up in a Vice Unit bust, and police suspected the handguns they found in that case were taken from the man’s collection.

Police then discovered the 80-year-old no longer had an active Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID) card, which he’d lost after a domestic battery conviction. So on June 20, 2018, they went to collect his guns.

They found 26 in the basement. Another 23 above the garage. More elsewhere.

“We had concerns based on his health condition, that he might not be able to adequately account for all those,” recalled Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner.

police chief

Normal, Ill., Police Chief Rick Bleichner. Photo by Ryan Denham/WGLT

“We didn’t want them to fall into the hands of individuals who knew about them or had access to them. He willingly gave those up to us.”

Police determined four guns were missing, including a stainless-steel Beretta 9mm handgun—just like the one police had recently confiscated at the scene of a 2018 double homicide in Normal. The suspect in that case, Chris Harrison, was friends with the 80-year-old’s grandson and possibly got the gun from the massive collection.

Harrison is charged with murder and possession of stolen guns.

The 80-year-old—who slept in a hospital bed hooked up to oxygen—was never charged with illegally possessing all those guns, records show. Tests are still pending on the Beretta to see if it was used in the April 2018 double-homicide.

The man with 80 guns is one of many troubling stories that emerged in 300-plus pages of police reports reviewed by GLT, documenting stolen and lost guns in McLean County, in central Illinois.

At least 69 guns have been reported lost or stolen in 49 separate incidents locally over the past two years, and that’s almost certainly an underestimate.

The reports chip away at a common argument against gun control—that criminals are solely to blame, and that law-abiding gun owners are responsible. In report after report, local gun owners made it easy to steal their guns by failing to secure them.

Just one example: On July 12, 2017, a man reported his Springfield XDM 9mm handgun missing from the backseat of his car, which he doesn’t always lock. The gun turned up eight months later during a traffic stop near Joliet. A 27-year-old man pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of the firearm.

Gun owners are not held responsible for the stolen guns. There’s no law requiring someone to lock up their guns at home or in their car, with one exception in Illinois—if kids under age 14 are nearby. That makes homes and vehicles prime targets for theft.

There’s even been research suggesting thieves have targeted vehicles with National Rifle Association stickers outside of stadiums, where you can’t bring a gun inside.

Nationally, more than 238,000 guns were stolen in 2016, including 4,745 in Illinois, according to government data obtained by The Trace.

The thefts come as gun ownership in McLean County is on the rise. Nearly one in five McLean County residents now has a FOID card, according to Illinois State Police data, a figure that has mopre than quadrupled since 2010, rising to 34,388 last year, ISP data show.

No Repercussions

Legal gun owners rarely face repercussions when guns go missing, even when they brush up against what few laws do exist. One of them requires that gun owners report a lost or stolen gun to police within three days of discovering it’s gone.

Around 23 percent of crimes where guns were stolen from individuals were not reported to police, according to an analysis of the National Crime Victimization Survey from 2011 to 2015, as reported by the Center for American Progress.

This happens locally. On Sept. 27, 2018, Normal Police found a Ruger .38 pistol under a mattress inside a hotel room. It was traced back to its legal owner, a Bloomington oral surgeon who usually kept it in his vehicle’s center console. He knew it was missing for a few weeks before police notified him it was recovered.

So why wasn’t he charged with failing to report the missing gun?

“In that investigation, he thought he had maybe moved the gun from where it had been to another location,” said Bleichner, the NPD chief. “Detectives were unable to really pin down that there was intent—that he was aware it was missing and failed to report it to us.

“We had some pretty extensive conversations with the (McLean County) state’s attorney’s office about it, and ultimately there was a decision not to bring charges.”

That’s a recurring issue. Someone would basically have to confess to definitively knowing a gun was missing for more than three days.

“We don’t know if a gun is lost or stolen if they don’t tell us,” said Fermon of the Bloomington Police Department.

And it’s only a petty offense for first-time offenders, meaning prosecutors and police have other more pressing priorities. Bloomington and Normal police said they haven’t arrested anyone in recent years for failing to report a missing gun.

Illinois is one of only 11 states and the District of Columbia that require someone to report their missing gun, according to the Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence. It says these laws have been shown to correlate with significant reductions in illegal gun trafficking.

But without harsher penalties, police have no incentive to enforce the law in Illinois, said Mark Jones, a former ATF agent who is now senior policy advisor for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence.

“It’s an indictment of the legislature that they create the law that requires people to report, but then don’t put any teeth in the law,” Jones said.

Pearson, with the Illinois State Rifle Association (ISRA), said there’s a simpler reason why no one ever gets charged with this offense: Gun owners follow the law.

Opposing New Storage Laws

Pearson said ISRA would oppose any attempt to legally require guns to be locked up.

“Every time the lawmakers try and cook up some scheme, it is so complex that it doesn’t work,” Pearson said. “The law-abiding gun owner is not the problem here. It’s the non-law-abiding gun owner that’s the problem.”

That’s a sentiment shared by some in local law enforcement.

McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp and his prosecutors regularly charge defendants with unlawful possession of guns, including stolen guns. He cautioned against attributing too much of the local increase in gun violence to stolen weapons.

“We have an amazing amount of responsible gun owners here in McLean County,” Knapp told GLT. “For me, to attribute gun violence to those gun owners, I’m just not there.

gun owner

Gun owner Chris Cashen of Bloomington speaks to the local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in Normal, Ill.

“The people responsible for the gun violence are the people that are committing the gun violence.”

But some gun owners believe that’s an unsatisfactory approach.

“To me, a responsible gun owner is someone who sees the weapon for what it is to others. Not just himself or herself,” said Chris Cashen of Bloomington, Ill.

When the McLean County chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense was looking for a law-abiding gun owner to speak to their members, Cashen was the perfect choice.

He likes to hunt. Primarily pheasant, sometimes deer, duck, and goose. He’s also shot more than his fair share of tin cans for target practice.

Cashen, whose family is from southern Illinois, is comfortable around guns. But he also respects their power and what those guns can do if they fall into the wrong hands.

That’s why he believes it’s imperative for gun owners to lock up their guns at home—not just to keep them away from thieves, but from household members who may be suicidal.

“Guns are stolen every day,” Cashen said. “Stolen guns are used in crime every day. There are a lot of gun owners who believe that once a gun is in their house, they can pretty much deal with it as they see fit.

“I don’t have a problem with that in principle. But in actuality, I think people are being irresponsible if they have unsecured weapons.”

Cashen, a behavioral health professional, said there are many ways to lock up a gun at home while still having it available for self-defense.

“I feel as a responsible citizen and a healthcare professional, that there are ways to have both,” he said.

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a two-part series broadcast on GLT, a public radio station based at Illinois State University in Normal, Ill. this month. The series on gun safety and stolen guns was produced by Ryan Denham, a 2019 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow, as his fellowship project. Read his full reports here.

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