The spike in dealer break-ins and thefts prompted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency that regulates gun stores, to launch an automated system that calls federally licensed firearms dealers, or FFLs, to alert them when a store has been robbed in their county. The agency says “fflAlert” provides the important service of warning gun stores that criminals are active in their area, and urging them to take precautions.
But many of those calls don’t appear to be getting through.
The Trace called 25 licensed dealers operating in counties in Kansas, Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Washington where a store was burglarized in April or May. At 21 of the stores, the manager or owner said they did not recall receiving an automated phone call from the agency alerting them to the nearby theft.
Many of the dealers said they had heard about the nearby break-ins from the local news or from friends, not from fflAlert. A handful said they received in-person visits from law enforcement following the burglaries, including from ATF agents. Seven dealers said they didn’t know that there had been a gun store theft nearby until contacted by The Trace.
On April 13, Signature Manufacturing was burglarized in Merriam, Kansas. Between $6,000 and $10,000 worth of guns were stolen. Reached by phone a week later, David Birk, the owner of Birk Outfitters in nearby Overland Park, said he “wasn’t aware” of the burglary. “I’m surprised to hear about it,” he said. “I’ve always thought this was a fairly safe county.”
The ATF launched fflAlert after gun store burglaries soared to new heights in 2016. A total of 558 burglaries were reported at licensed firearms dealers, a 30 percent jump over 2015. In those thefts, more than 7,488 firearms were stolen, a 59 percent increase over 2015.
Stolen weapons, by definition, end up in criminal hands. Guns stolen from dealers have been recovered at crime scenes, including murders.
Dealers are required to notify the ATF after they have been burglarized. Once the agency receives the notification, the fflAlert system begins automatically dialing other gun retailers in the same county. The call is a pre-recorded message, alerting businesses to the nearby theft, and urging the establishment to “ensure the security of both your inventory and property.” The call details the means of entry utilized in the theft.
The ATF says the calls are made between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., seven days a week. The program contacts traditional retail establishments and pawn shops, and uses the phone numbers provided by stores to the ATF during the licensing process.
The Trace reached out to dealers at the same phone numbers used by the ATF. If no one answered, we contacted the businesses through publicly listed numbers.
An ATF spokesperson, Mary Markos, said in an emailed statement that the fflAlert system is active in all 50 states. She declined to address specific instances where gun stores said they did not receive the automated phone calls.
“The system is designed to call each FFL once,” Markos said. “Unfortunately, we do not have a system in place to continue calling until someone answers, but the system does leave the information on voicemail. As it is a new program, we will continue to modify and refine it to increase its effectiveness.”
Two of the four dealers who said they had received an fflAlert call are located near Armageddon Supplies in Janesville, Wisconsin. The store was at the epicenter of a nationwide manhunt after Joseph Jakubowski, an anti-government extremist, broke into it on April 4, stole 18 weapons, and sent a threatening manifesto to the White House.
Markos said that fflAlert contacted 52 dealers in Rock County after the Armageddon break-in.
The owners of Rock County Arms in Janesville and Ambler’s Gun Room in Beloit both said they received the ATF’s robocall the morning after Armageddon Supplies was struck. Tom Ambler of Ambler’s Gun Room learned of the heist from fflAlert. “It made me much more mindful and watchful of my comings and goings, and if anybody was watching the establishment,” he said. Later, Ambler spoke about Jakubowski’s crime with local police and agents from the ATF’s Milwaukee field office.
The ATF has limited ability to improve the security of the nation’s 60,000 retail firearm dealers. The bureau provides literature on best practices for repelling burglars and preventing loss of firearms, but it has no authority to actually require the adoption of any particular security measures.
Most state and city governments do not place additional anti-theft requirements on gun sellers. In fact, many states — including Wisconsin and Florida — have passed so-called pre-emption laws, which prevent local governments from instituting their own gun-related regulations, including minimum anti-theft requirements.
Even in states where the National Rifle Association has less political clout, or that don’t bar localities from making their own gun laws, it’s rare that dealers are required to fortify their stores against theft. Washington is one of 41 states that allow gun stores to operate without any minimum security measures.
As a result, some criminals there see gun stores as easy targets. Just before 3 a.m. on May 26, thieves broke into the I-5 Guns and Ammo store in Lacey, Washington, making off with tens of thousands of dollars worth of guns and other merchandise.
A manager at Tumwater Pawn Brokers nearby said he received a call from the ATF that very morning, urging the store to be vigilant, since burglars were targeting local firearms dealers. But for the pawn shop, the message was a little late: it had been burglarized 10 days earlier.