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Gun Theft

Thieves Are Stealing More and More Guns in St. Louis. One Official Wants to Force Owners to Better Secure Their Weapons.

Nearly 850 firearms were stolen in the city last year, and those are just the ones police know about.

Beginning January 1, Missourians will be able to carry concealed weapons without a permit, a result of a package of controversial gun laws approved by the state legislature over the governor’s veto earlier this year. Opponents of the new law say that eliminating licensing requirements will result in more people bringing more guns to more places, increasing the odds of an accident or a deadly conflict.

Critics are also worried about a less-mentioned side-effect: that the number of gun thefts — especially from cars — will surge. The fear is especially acute in places like St. Louis, which draws large numbers of visitors from surrounding communities for sporting and cultural events.

“There’s a lot of concern that this is going to drive a rise in firearm possession and firearms being brought along, and as a side effect of that, you’re going to see an increase in thefts,” says Remy Cross, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at nearby Webster University. “Once they’ve been stolen, they disappear, until they’ve been used in a crime.”

Gun thefts in St. Louis have been trending upward over the last decade. At least 843 guns were pilfered in the city last year, almost double the amount in 2006, when 426 were stolen. About a fifth were stolen out of cars. And that’s just the gun thefts that were reported to police. Research suggests that many never are.

Those stolen weapons, by definition, end up in the hands of a criminal. It’s difficult to quantify how many of them are used to commit violence, but law enforcement officials say that many of guns recovered at crime scenes were stolen. Last year, the city suffered the highest homicide rate in the country, with triple the number of killings per capita than Chicago.

Earlier this month, St. Louis Alderwoman Lyda Krewson introduced a proposal that requires firearms left in cars to be secured in a locked container that is permanently affixed to the vehicle and not visible from the outside, a provision squarely aimed at thwarting thieves. The bill would also require victims to report the thefts to police within two days. Currently, there is no reporting requirement.

Violations of either rule change would carry the possibility of a $500 fine and up to 90 days in jail.

“Missouri has done nothing but make guns easier and easier to get,” Krewson tells The Trace. “We deserve to push back against this.”

Krewson, who recently launched a mayoral campaign for the 2017 election, is intimately familiar with St. Louis’ gun violence problem. In 1995, her husband was shot and killed in a carjacking.

But even if her measure passes the city council, it’s not certain to become law. Like many states, the Missouri legislature has a preemption statute on the books, which sharply constrains the extent to which municipalities can regulate firearms on their own. Any new requirements on how gun owners must store their guns, or report the losses of their weapons, could set up a showdown with the state legislature.

The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have vigorously fought against reporting requirements for stolen guns in others parts of the country, contending that they expose gun owners to unwarranted penalties. A Democratic lawmaker from St. Louis tried to push such a bill through the Missouri legislature in 2014, but the provision failed under NRA pressure.

A slew of similar measures have recently come up for debate in state and local legislatures. In September, the New Orleans City Council passed a lost-and-stolen reporting requirement. That same month, California, which already had an ordinance requiring secure storage in cars for civilians, extended that obligation to police after firearms swiped from law enforcement vehicles turned up in connection to two killings in the San Francisco Bay area.

In St. Louis, gun thefts have become such a flashpoint that Police Chief Sam Dotson issued a stern warning in advance of the 2013 opening day at Busch Stadium, telling gun owners to leave their firearms at home because thieves were targeting cars in the stadium’s parking lot during St. Louis Cardinals games.

Since then, the stolen gun problem in St. Louis has only worsened. Out of more than 70 cities that have provided statistics on guns reported stolen as part of The Trace’s ongoing investigation into firearm theft, the Missouri city recorded the 11th-most number of gun thefts — 5th most, if population size is factored in.

In May of this year, after his officers recovered two stolen rifles and a .45-caliber handgun with the serial number scratched off in the hands of a suspected gang member, Dotson took to his blog to register his frustration.

“Do you know why a criminal files the serial number off a gun?” he wrote in a 700-word diatribe. “Because it is stolen, because it is being used in violent crime and often because they plan to use that instrument as a murder weapon. That’s why.”

[Photo: Shutterstock]