In October 2015, the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Department in South Carolina made what is likely one of the biggest gun busts ever recorded. The department seized about 3,800 firearms from Brent Nicholson, who ran a local liquor store with his father.
Authorities suspected that the vast majority of the firearms found in Nicholson’s possession had been stolen. Nicholson, police believed, purchased the weapons from thieves, who knew that he would buy whatever guns they proffered, no questions asked.
Nicholson was facing a sentence as long as 30 years in prison. But police and prosecutors had a problem: while they were able to link a handful of the weapons to thefts, most of the firearms had never been reported stolen — or if they were, their owners did not know the serial numbers or other identifying details, making it impossible to match them back to weapons recovered from Nicholson’s home.
His lawyer, George Speedy, told The Trace that the inability to prove that Nicholson’s arsenal was stocked with stolen weapons greatly aided his case. Speedy said he was able to credibly argue that his client wasn’t aware that the weapons he was acquiring were illegally obtained.
Nicholson spent 14 months in jail before pleading guilty to possession of a stolen pistol and three counts of receiving stolen goods. He was released on probation in March, 2017. “If they had been able to prove all of the guns were stolen, he would be under the jail,” Speedy said.
“It was very frustrating,” said Kernard Redmond, the prosecutor assigned to the case.
A 2015 survey of gun owners conducted by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities estimated that as many as 380,000 weapons are lost or stolen each year. Reports of thefts to police are much lower: they totalled about 240,000 in 2016, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, which derives its figures from data provided by local law enforcement.
The large gap between the number of weapons reported stolen and the number believed to have actually been stolen is at least partially attributable to the fact that most owners are under no legal obligation to tell police when someone has taken a firearm from them.
Only 11 states and Washington, D.C., require gun owners to file a police report if a gun is lost or stolen. South Carolina is not one of them. There is no federal requirement.
Law enforcement officials, prosecutors, experts, and lawmakers tell The Trace that not knowing that a gun was stolen hinders criminal investigations, and their understanding of gun-trafficking networks.
“If they don’t get reported, we don’t get to act on it and in a timely fashion,” said Frank Occhipinti, deputy chief of the firearms operations division for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “That’s what’s crucial for us.”
Reports of thefts can help law enforcement recover stolen guns faster, officials say.
David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, likened the reports to the AMBER Alert system, the automatic messaging service that blasts out a warning when a child has been abducted nearby.
“The sooner that gun is reported, the sooner we can start looking into the people who have a history of trying to obtain a gun,” said Brandon Epp, a sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
According to a team of researchers affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, stolen-gun reports also serve as a deterrent to interstate gun trafficking. In Reducing Gun Violence in America, a book published in 2013, the team, which included professors Daniel Webster and Jon Vernick, found that crime guns that originated in states that had a lost-or-stolen reporting law were less likely to end up in another state than guns that came from states without such laws. “Having this measure of accountability significantly reduced interstate gun tracking,” they wrote.
When prosecuting crimes involving stolen guns, the reports provide a granular level of knowledge that can help district attorneys understand the landscape in which the crime exists, rather than the singular act itself, explained Bill Montgomery, the county attorney in Maricopa County, Arizona.
“That stolen-gun report is going to allow me to understand the nature of the defendant I’m dealing with better,” Montgomery said.
Stolen-weapon reports also help prosecutors establish a greater degree of proof that people like Nicholson are culpable for purchasing the weapons. In states that differentiate each stolen gun as an individual charge, prosecutors can stack up charges to help make a better case.
“More charges, more chances of a conviction,” said Speedy, the attorney who represented Nicholson.
Multiple law enforcement sources said that reporting requirements are a key method of combating one of the most common means of diverting weapons to the underground market: straw purchasing.
A straw purchase describes a situation in which a person who can pass a background check buys a firearm and provides it to someone prohibited from owning a weapon. In states without a reporting requirement, straw purchasing a weapon comes with limited risk, Epp said. If police recover a crime gun that they suspect was obtained through a straw purchase, the original buyer can simply claim the weapon was lost or stolen.
“The lack of a reporting requirement enables straw buyers to shield their criminal activity and continue to sell guns illegally,” Epp said.
If a straw purchaser claims that the weapon was stolen in a state with a reporting requirement, however, police are provided with a vehicle for investigating — and potentially charging — the individual.
“The most difficult part of trying to put together trafficking cases is when you know you’ve got straw purchasers and you simply don’t have an angle to arrest them or indict them. The trace ends right there,” said Michael Bouchard, a former ATF assistant director of field operations. Without a stolen gun report, the paper trail ends at the moment of sale. “It’s much more difficult working leads on trafficking cases in states when there’s no mandatory requirement.”
“I wish every state had them and every state enforced it,” he added.
State legislators have faced opposition to reporting-requirement laws even in states otherwise friendly to gun control legislation. California governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown both vetoed bills that would require the reporting of missing firearms. The law finally passed when it was added to a ballot initiative known as Proposition 63 in 2016.
The lack of a reporting requirement enables straw buyers to shield their criminal activity and continue to sell guns illegally.”
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
The Trace found that even states with reporting requirements rarely enforce them. In New York, there have been a total of 11 arraignments for violations of the law statewide over the past five years. Illinois had fewer than 10 arrests in the same time period. Connecticut filed 19 charges, but none resulted in a conviction. Rhode Island had just four charges for its law.
Those who do get caught face a fine of $75 to $90 in most states for the first offense.
In Rhode Island, a man was charged after his gun was found tossed errantly on the side of a road. In Suffolk County, Massachusetts, a police officer was charged after he left a firearm in a locked closet and didn’t report it stolen until a week after discovering it was gone.
Bouchard, the former ATF official, said courts don’t see enforcing reporting laws as a priority. “It’s viewed as a minor violation,” he said.
Court documents detail 18 firearms in Nicholson’s possession that were stolen from homes, cabins, and hunting clubs in South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, and Florida. None of those states have reporting-requirement laws. Only North Carolina requires a background check in sales between private parties, and that just applies to handguns. (While a check isn’t required at every sale, the state requires all handgun owners to obtain a permit, which includes screening.) For the rest, a gun can swap hands multiple times without creating a paper trail.
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Sheriff Jay Brooks of Chesterfield County and Redmond, the prosecutor, agreed with Nicholson’s lawyer that if the state had been able to prove that more of the weapons found in his home were stolen, Nicholson might still be incarcerated.
The Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Department, the ATF, and the statewide South Carolina Law Enforcement Division have spent thousands of hours logging, organizing, and investigating Nicholson’s guns, according to Brooks. He said it has cost the county tens of thousands of dollars.
As a convicted felon, Nicholson will never legally own a firearm again. Local police can search his property at any time without a warrant. The thousands of firearms still in the sheriff’s possession were transferred to a trust and will likely be sold at auction.
But because the state could not prove they were stolen, Nicholson could receive the proceeds from their sale.