In the autumn of 2006, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Hafter, a 22-year-old graduate student, was shot twice in the head while she studied on a mountain overlook in Virginia. The man behind the trigger had stolen the murder weapon and the car he was driving from his roommate in Georgia, the first act of a multistate crime spree that left several people dead across the South. The roommate did not report the thefts to police for nearly a week, precious time lost to investigators.
“He could have been stopped if the gun owner had only reported the gun and car stolen,” Hafter’s mother, Joanne, wrote in a letter to a lawmaker in the years after her daughter’s death.
The letter was part of Joanne Hafter’s shoe-leather crusade to hold gun owners accountable for failing to promptly inform police about the theft of their weapons. Though her daughter was killed in Virginia, Hafter has focused her push in her home state of South Carolina, penning editorials, telephoning lawmakers, and even buttonholing a member of the state House at a local Costco. In 2015, Hafter’s campaign yielded a bill, dubbed “Lizzy’s Law,” but the measure stalled in committee.
“It’s been like hitting a brick wall over and over and over again,” Hafter told The Trace.
Now, Democratic State Representative Robert Williams is reviving the bill. The legislation would give gun owners 24 hours after noticing that a firearm is missing to notify police or risk a misdemeanor conviction and a $100 fine. A third violation could carry punishments of up to $1,000, three years in prison, and a three-year ban on firearm possession.
“I wanted to reignite the flame,” said Williams, a military veteran who sometimes keeps a revolver in his car for self-defense. “When weapons go missing, people need to be responsible and report them missing.”
As The Trace has reported, just 11 states have some version of a lost-and-stolen reporting requirement. Bills that would expand that list are pending in Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, in addition to South Carolina.
Law enforcement officials say that reports of missing guns help them spot trends and prosecute criminals. The information can also cut down on trafficking, deterring people from illegally buying guns on another’s behalf, only to then claim the weapons were stolen after they turn up at crime scenes.
Imposing fines for not reporting gun thefts is deeply unpopular among gun-rights supporters, who view the penalties as a second blow against owners who’ve been hit by thieves. Republican state senators in Virginia recently rejected a reporting bill that was part of a legislative package supported by the state’s newly installed Democratic governor. In Pennsylvania, the National Rifle Association has waged a yearslong battle in the courts and the Legislature to overturn a local reporting ordinance in Pittsburgh, even though the city has never enforced it.
Legislation introduced in the Pennsylvania House last March would expand reporting requirements statewide. Until recently, it appeared as though the proposal would die without so much as a public hearing. The bill’s prospects grew brighter after an NBC10 reporter working with The Trace confronted the committee’s chairman, Representative Ron Marsico, a Harrisburg Republican and a NRA stalwart. After a tense on-camera exchange, Marsico vowed to call up the bill for debate this year.
In South Carolina, the first hurdle “Lizzy’s Law” must clear is in the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Representative Greg Delleney, a Republican from Chester, a small city north of Columbia. Delleney has torpedoed other measures criticized as anathema to the Second Amendment, including one proposal aimed at addressing the background check system’s so-called default proceed loophole, through which Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist, purchased the Glock handgun he used in the 2015 Charleston church massacre. Delleney did not return a message from The Trace seeking comment.
The renewed push for “Lizzy’s Law” comes as gun theft reports have surged in South Carolina. Gun owners in the Palmetto State reported the theft of 8,949 firearms in 2016, an increase of more than 120 percent over 2007, when 4,034 guns were reported stolen, according to the National Crime Information Center. All told, more than 55,000 guns were reported stolen in South Carolina over the last decade.
Some of that increase could be the result of police relaying more gun theft reports to the federal database. It’s also almost certainly an undercount. Research by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the left-leaning Center for American Progress suggests that between 14 percent and 23 percent of gun thefts from private owners are never reported. Applying that range to South Carolina means that police were not notified about as many as 7,700 to 12,650 gun thefts over the last 10 years.
A yearlong investigation by The Trace and NBC compiled more than 800,000 records of stolen and recovered firearms from more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies across the country. Records from just two South Carolina cities, Greenville and North Charleston, reviewed by The Trace, show nearly 200 stolen firearms were recovered by law enforcement between 2012 and 2016. That count includes stolen weapons recovered by the Greenville and North Charleston police departments as well as guns that were reported stolen in those cities but may have been recovered in other jurisdictions.
In one case, police found a stolen .40-caliber Taurus pistol at an apartment complex in Greenville after someone had reportedly opened fire near a playground, wounding an innocent bystander. In another, police stumbled upon a stolen assault-style rifle in the woods while they were searching a property as part of a drug investigation.
The consequences of unreported gun theft were brought into sharp relief in 2015, when South Carolina sheriff’s deputies seized about 3,800 guns from Brent Nicholson, a 51-year-old who helped his father run a local liquor store. At the time, officials called the seizure one of the biggest gun busts ever recorded in the Carolinas, and it garnered worldwide headlines.
Investigators working the case believed that Nicholson had either stolen the vast majority of the guns or had others steal them on his behalf.
But most of the guns seized from Nicholson were never reported missing, or if they were, the guns’ rightful owners had failed to record the weapons’ serial numbers, making it impossible to match them back to weapons in Nicholson’s arsenal.
After the bust, Nicholson faced up to 30 years in prison. But with investigators unable to link most of the guns to thefts, the prosecution’s case collapsed. He spent 14 months in jail before being released on probation.
“If they had been able to prove all of the guns were stolen, he would be under the jail,” Nicholson’s attorney, George Speedy, told The Trace last year.