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A sign in West Houston offers a cautionary message to post-Harvey looters. [Eric Fernandez]

Gun Theft

Houston Gun Shop Owner Says Bullets Are a Hot Commodity After Harvey

‘People want to arm up and protect themselves from the looters.’

Hurricane Harvey may have moved on from East Texas, but the flood waters are only beginning to recede. Millions are scrambling for essentials like drinking water and food. Some, with worries about the ability of strained law enforcement to keep the peace, are in search of bullets.

“Our phones are blowing off the hook,” said James Hillin, the owner of Full Armor Firearms in Houston, which made it through the storm without flooding. “What people want is ammo. People want to arm up and protect themselves from the looters.”

There have been reports of looting in Houston, and the mayor has instituted a curfew. More than 40 people have been arrested in the city and the surrounding area, the Houston Chronicle reported on Thursday. So far, there doesn’t appear to be evidence that the problem is widespread.

Gun owners worried that their weapons might be stolen have also called Hillin to ask a favor: “All these people who got their houses flooded are calling me to put their guns in my store’s vault,” he said. “It’s bone dry.”

Hillen talked to The Trace on Wednesday afternoon, as he drove out of the suburb of Pearland outside Houston, where he lives, for the first time since Harvey struck. While his home and gun store escaped flooding, the roads he took to work had been impassable for days, and the water was only just receding.

Hillin shared his customers’ fears that looters would take advantage of the storm.

Full Armor is located right off the I-10 interstate. The business is a frequent target of break-in attempts, even absent natural disasters, and Hillin says he thinks that with police focused on saving people trapped by flooding, Harvey would make his shop irresistible.

“They’re looking for easy money,” he said. “They know that power’s going to be out all over so they figure there won’t be alarms or surveillance. Of course, I have a big generator and backup batteries. Nothing wrong with being prepared.”

After Hurricane Matthew struck the Carolinas last year, burglars took advantage of the crisis and robbed one store of more than 200 weapons.

Nicole Strong, a spokesperson for the Houston field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, confirmed that gun stores in the area were burglarized during the storm. Strong said the ATF would not be able to comment on exactly how many stores were targeted or how many guns stolen until next week at the earliest.

Though Hillen was cut off from his store by flooded roads until Wednesday, he had pairs of his employees stay at Full Armor in shifts throughout the storm, keeping watch with AR-15 rifles, he said. The store is open for business, he said.

Hillin said he spoke with the Houston Police, who checked on his store. He said his employees scared off six different people they suspected were looters. “The looters got the hint pretty quickly,” he said. He was pleased.

If anyone successfully entered his store, though, they would have had a hard time actually stealing any guns, Hillen said. When the shop isn’t open, Full Armor stores all weapons in a bank-like vault room.

Hillin said few of his peers in the Houston gun dealer scene took such precautions.

“A lot of people aren’t answering their phone. I’ve sent out text messages,” he said. “If they didn’t have the type of security I had, I bet they got broken into.”

That vulnerability to theft troubled him.

“If you come in and steal my guns, not only is my livelihood damaged, now a bunch of turds have guns,” Hillen said. “We know the turds are out there trying.”