As Hurricane Matthew bore down on South Carolina in early October, Dan Huneycutt was worried about more than flooding and downed trees. He couldn’t help but think the confusion created by a natural disaster and mass evacuation presented criminals with the perfect opportunity to break into his gun store, Five Star Guns, in the small town of Longs near Myrtle Beach.

He and his staff stayed in the shop until the last possible moment, even after the state told residents to get out of the path of the storm. “On Wednesday, they were talking about evacuating everybody,” Huneycutt tells The Trace. “We didn’t close until Friday.” He was prepared to rush back at the first sign of trouble — especially if the power went out and shut down his burglar alarm and security cameras.

On the morning of Saturday, October 8, Matthew made landfall in South Carolina. The slow-moving storm dumped huge amounts of water on the state. Rivers and streams overflowed into the streets of Longs and the surrounding towns. Wind knocked down trees and toppled power lines, as Huneycutt feared. His shop’s burglar alarm had a back-up battery, but it was only strong enough to last a few hours.

Huneycutt says he wanted to make the eight mile drive from his home in North Myrtle Beach to check on his store, which he opened about a year ago, but doing so in the midst of the raging storm would have meant risking his life. “There was three feet of floodwater outside my door,” Huneycutt says. “I couldn’t get anywhere.”

He was stuck inside his house until Sunday. While he was marooned, a group of thieves ripped down the metal bars on his store’s front door and made off with 229 guns, 60 percent of his inventory. Huneycutt says he believes it was the largest-ever theft of guns from a single robbery in state history.

The majority of the stolen firearms, 200 of the total, were handguns, the kind of weapon most commonly used in crimes. The remainder were rifles, like the semiautomatic AR-15 and AK-47, which are popular among consumers, and one shotgun. Huneycutt estimates the value of the stolen guns at $280,000. The cache was so valuable because the thieves targeted custom weapons and collectors’ items. Their take included 50 guns that were worth $3,000 apiece, Huneycutt says.

Huneycutt had been expecting someone to attempt a break-in for a while. “There’s been guys casing here since we opened up,” he says. He believes the culprits behind the October burglary had brazenly scoped his store out as recently as three days before the crime. “We had cars in our parking lot that were real suspicious. Of the three plates we ran, none of the tags matched the car. They were riding in stolen cars.”

Five Star had what seemed to be a formidable security system: metal bars on doors and windows, a burglar alarm directly connected to police, and surveillance cameras. Neither the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, which regulates gun dealers, nor any local authorities require such measures.

Inside the store, inventory was in glass display cases or hanging mounted on the walls. With the cameras and alarms offline because of the storm, the thieves were free to grab as many weapons as they wanted.

According to a forthcoming study from researchers at Harvard and Northeastern Universities, about 600,000 guns are stolen each year from private owners. Licensed dealers are required to report all thefts to the ATF, and last year alone, 6,163 guns were reported stolen. Stolen guns are of particular concern to law enforcement authorities — by definition, they all end up in criminal hands.

Natural disasters provide cover for gun thieves. Five Star wasn’t the only gun store robbed in states struck by Hurricane Matthew. In Florida, thieves also struck Florida Gun Exchange in Port Orange and a gunsmith in Palm Coast. In the town of Florence, South Carolina, a little over an hour’s drive away from Five Star, burglars broke into the Reloaded gun shop. At least 353 weapons were stolen during the storm and in its aftermath.

Soon after his store was robbed, Huneycutt says he started getting tips about who committed the burglary from people in the small community. This didn’t surprise him: “You steal that many guns and start selling them, and somebody’s going to talk.” He says he passed this information along to the ATF and Horry County police, who are handling the investigation, but he doesn’t know what they’ve done with the leads. “The police haven’t told me anything.” But he’s optimistic the thieves will be caught — they were too audacious to lie low, he says.

The ATF’s field division in the Carolinas region, based in Charlotte, declined to comment on the ongoing investigation. The Horry County police did not respond to repeated phone calls. The ATF has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to convictions. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s largest trade group, says it will match the reward, as it often does after burglaries like this.

For now, Huneycutt is focused on rebuilding. He’s installing new window bars directly connected to the wall’s structure. If someone tries to attempt a similar burglary, “and they put a chain around the bars, they’ll have to be able to pull down the whole wall,” he explains.

The burglar alarm and security cameras will get a new battery system that should keep the security alarm and cameras running for 60 days days after the grid goes out. In front of the store, he’s installing barriers like those found outside government buildings that prevent anyone from driving a car right up to the front door. Inside, guns will be locked overnight in a new vault.

Regardless of what Huneycutt or the police do next, it’s unlikely many of the stolen weapons will be recovered. In a 2012 study, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than 80 percent of guns stolen during the course of property crimes had not been recovered within six months of theft. Stolen guns are often fenced onto the underground market, where they change hands so freely some ATF agents have compared them to currency.

The Glocks, Rugers, AR-15s, AK-47s and one gold-plated Luger pistol stolen from Huneycutt’s store will mostly stay in criminals’ hands, even if the burglars themselves are caught.

[Photo: Lisa Gresci / WMBF]