Hurricane Irma poses special threats to the nearly 2,900 licensed retail gun dealers in the Sunshine State. Burglars take advantage of the chaos that follows natural disasters and steal major hauls of firearms from stores. And floodwaters can destroy valuable records of background checks and sales, both of which are essential for cracking down on gun crime.
With Irma projected to make landfall this weekend, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has advised the state’s federally licensed gun dealers, or FFLs, to relocate weapons, ammunition, and records to secure facilities.
“A disaster preparedness plan should be established by all FFLs … to safeguard their businesses by protecting explosives, firearms, and required records,” the advisory reads.
The agency has good reason to fear that the storm could leave gun stores vulnerable to thieves willing to brave the weather. There are no federal requirements for gun store security — in the majority of states, FFLs can operate with nothing more than a lock on the door.
In the midst of Hurricane Harvey, burglars hit three Houston-area gun stores for almost 100 firearms. The thefts occurred even though ATF was assisting local police in keeping an eye on licensed dealers. After Hurricane Matthew devastated the Carolinas last year, a team of burglars stole more than 200 guns from a single store.
“We’re locking up all the guns we have in display cases or in windows,” said Felix Garcia of Miami Guns and Range in Hialeah. “We’re making sure all the windows are barred. We’ll have someone guarding the store throughout the storm. But we’ll be open until Friday, because residents will want to stock up on ammo, just in case.”
The threat to vital records is also profound. The ATF is forbidden by law from creating a centralized computerized database of inventories kept by gun sellers. That means that when the agency needs to trace a crime gun, it relies on records maintained by individual stores. Most of those records are analog. A majority of gun sellers record sales and inventories in handwritten “bound books.” It was only last year that the ATF permitted FFLs to maintain electronic inventories without special approval.
In the days after Harvey made landfall in Texas, my colleague Jennifer Mascia spoke with David Chipman, a former ATF agent who now works for the advocacy group Americans for Responsible Solutions, about what happens when gun store records are damaged or destroyed.
“You lose the ability to connect the dots in an important investigation,” he said. “FFLs wouldn’t be able to complete the dispositions, and that’s the end of the road.”
Chipman knows from experience. When he was still an ATF agent in 2005, Hurricane Katrina damaged troves of gun store records. Chipman told NPR that sorting through waterlogged records after Hurricane Katrina was “one of the most troubling things we had to deal with.”