A television news station in Johnson City, Tennessee, used data collected by The Trace and NBC to link 105 guns stolen in the northeastern part of the state to crimes committed across the United States, including kidnapping and murder.
One of the weapons tracked by the reporting team was reported stolen in 2013 by Bobby Lady, following a break-in at his home. A convicted felon used the gun six months later to shoot and kill a local college student. Lady told the station he was devastated to learn the fate of his missing firearm. “I cried and cried when I found out what happened to that young man,” he said.
The reporting by the Tennessee news outlet shows how reporters can use the trove of data on stolen and recovered guns amassed by The Trace and NBC to examine the nexus between gun theft and violent crime, and deliver high-impact stories to their audiences. After publishing a yearlong investigation on gun theft in November, The Trace and its reporting partners made the data available for free online, and have since provided technical assistance and advice to other journalists and researchers interested in the issue.
Guns pilfered in Northeast Tennessee surfaced as far away as California, where, the station found, a loaded stolen handgun was discovered in a front yard two blocks away from an elementary school.
One gun, a Smith & Wesson pistol, was stolen from an off-duty Virginia sheriff deputy’s glove compartment while she was visiting Tennessee. WJHL searched for the weapon’s serial number in the database and got a hit in Camden, New Jersey, hundreds of miles away.
Records from the Camden County Police Department showed that the pistol was recovered in 2016 after police responded to reports of shots fired, came upon two people drinking and found that one of them had the gun in his possession.
The Trace and its partners spent a year acquiring data on stolen and recovered guns. Now we are making it available for journalists, researchers, and the public to use.
WJHL notified the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia, where the deputy was employed. Captain Scott Snapp told the station that the department had not been informed that the weapon was recovered. “It would’ve been nice if we had known,” he said. The Trace’s investigation found that police departments frequently fail to share information about stolen and recovered weapons.
If you’re a reporter interested in the issue of stolen guns, you can contact me at [email protected].