Thieves are breaking into more gun stores, and stealing more weapons, than at any time since the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began tracking burglaries and robberies five years ago.
A total of 558 burglaries were reported at licensed firearms dealers in 2016, a 30 percent jump over 2015, which had previously been the busiest year on record for gun store break-ins. The number of guns stolen in these heists soared as well. The ATF recorded 7,488 firearms lost to burglars last year, 59 percent more than were stolen in burglaries in 2015, when thieves took 4,721 weapons.
Since 2012, the earliest year for which data is available, burglaries from licensed dealers have increased by 48 percent and the number of guns stolen by 73 percent. These are thefts committed after business hours, where the perpetrators forced entry into the interior of gun stores.
The surge in thefts comes as many large cities, including Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis, have experienced an increase in the number of fatal shootings. Guns stolen from dealers, by definition, end up in the hands of criminals. Many are later sold on the black market to people who are not legally allowed to purchase firearms.
“These crimes victimize law-abiding federal firearms licensees, causing a threat to their livelihood and even personal safety at times, and the stolen firearms further pose a threat to the safety of our communities,” said ATF spokeswoman Amanda Hils. “ATF special agents and industry operations investigators across the country work alongside our local and state law enforcement partners to prevent, respond to, and investigate these incidents.”
The number of robberies — thefts committed during business, while staff are present — while much smaller, also increased to a record high. The ATF reported 33 robberies last year, with 370 guns stolen. That represents a 175 percent increase in these even more brazen thefts since 2012.
While the ATF has not yet released a state-by-state breakdown of last year’s burglaries, historically, thefts have been geographically concentrated in Southeastern states like the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. The problem was so pronounced in the Carolinas last year that the agent in charge of the bureau’s Charlotte Division, Christopher Hyman, sent licensed dealers a letter in November warning them that the region was on track to have the largest total number of stolen firearms in the county.
Hyman’s letter provided details of the thieves’ tactics. Perpetrators “have used a number of means to gain entry into businesses, including armed robbery, using vehicles to break through entrances and walls, entering through air conditioning vents, cutting power supplies, and breaking through the walls of adjoining businesses,” it read.
Hyman warned “thieves are spending a considerable amount of time conducting surveillance of the business to identify weaknesses in security systems and plans,” and urged dealers “to match that effort.”
The federal government imposes no requirements on gun dealers to implement measures to deter burglaries or keep guns secure in the event of a break-in. That means a dealer can open for business — and close up for the night — with nothing more than a lock on the door.
Only nine states require gun dealers to take additional steps to protect their merchandise. California, Connecticut, Minnesota, and New Jersey require gun dealers to install burglar alarms or store guns securely after hours. Other states restrict how dealers may display guns in parts of the retail establishment visible to the street. Localities can impose additional security requirements through the zoning process.
Many gun dealers, in the absence of a federal or state mandate, take matters into their own hands, installing vaults for storing weapons after hours, surveillance cameras, or alarms that alert local police.
As ATF data make clear, gun stores in states with security requirements are burglarized less often. In New Jersey, for example, not a single federal firearms licensee (FFL) has been burglarized since 2012. Connecticut had no more than two break-ins per year during that same period. In 2015, California, a state with 8,148 licensed retail gun dealers, recorded 14 FFL burglaries. Florida, a state with 7,426 gun stores and no security requirements, recorded 40 burglaries in the same year.
Representatives from the gun industry are aware of the threat posed by criminals to gun stores.
“This is a retailer’s livelihood we’re talking about,” said Barry Laws, CEO of the American Firearms Retailers Association. “It’s not something we are flippant about.”
The AFRA does not endorse laws requiring gun stores to make their shops more secure, however.