Virginia Pelley is a Tampa-based freelance journalist who has written for Al Jazeera America, The Washington Post, and VICE Motherboard.
Smash-and-grab burglaries of gun stores are on the rise, and there’s not much cities can do to stop them.
At 3 a.m. on November 29, an SUV plowed through the front door and window of the Tampa Arms Company, a gun store in a Florida strip mall. Black-and-white security video of the burglary captured the vehicle smashing into the building, then a group of thieves in hoodies flooding the store. They made off with 42 guns, including handguns, shotguns, and AR-15 assault-style rifles.
It took a little over a week for one of those Tampa Arms guns to turn up in a homicide investigation in Orlando. On December 10, police in nearby Polk County arrested two teenagers for the murder of 27-year-old Kendra Lewis, who was shot in a gas station parking lot as she sat in her car with her 5-year-old daughter.
Thom Hauser, co-owner of Tampa Arms Company, wouldn't comment on the Lewis case, but he observes that gun-store owners are in a “tough situation” when it comes to how stolen firearms are used.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to think about those things, if one of our guns had some effect on a person’s life.” He compared it to when a person’s car is stolen and the thief hits and kills someone with it. “Is it your fault? Well, not really. We have no control over that. At what point does it become the criminal’s responsibility? It’s a difficult conversation.”
Guns stolen from licensed dealers contribute to a vast illegal gun market in the U.S.—last year, nearly 7,500 firearms were stolen in gun-store burglaries. (It should be noted: The number of guns stolen annually from private citizens’ homes and cars dwarfs that figure.) Stolen firearms are often used in crimes locally within 48 hours, says Michael Knight, special agent and public information officer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Nashville Division. And after-hours, smash-and-grab thefts like the one in Tampa are a growing trend: Dealer burglaries in Florida rose by 66 percent from 2015 to 2016, ATF data shows.
Nationwide, Florida now ranks third in the number of guns stolen in store burglaries. Georgia leads the nation, followed by Texas; South Carolina comes fourth. Even California, despite stringent state regulations on federally licensed firearms (FFL) dealers, lost 479 stolen guns last year. A total of 558 FFL dealer burglaries in the U.S. were reported to the ATF in 2016, a 30 percent increase over the previous year. The number of firearms stolen in dealer burglaries has risen nearly 73 percent since 2012.
Once they’re on the street, guns can travel far, winding up in distant cities. The firearm used to kill New York police officer Brian Moore in 2015 was reported stolen from a store in Georgia; guns stolen in a South Dakota store were linked to murders in the Denver area last year.
Many illegal guns—either stolen, obtained via straw purchases, or bought from dealers who don’t adhere to background checks—flow upstream from Georgia and Florida to the Northeast and New England via Interstate 95, in what’s known as the Iron Pipeline. The channels change in response to demand, but currently Indiana, which has looser gun restrictions, is considered a source state for the illegal gun market in Chicago, and many guns stolen in northeast Pennsylvania are recovered in New York City, Knight says. In 2014, 494 of the more than 15,000 firearms recovered in California were stolen from Texas; 774 were from Nevada, and more than 1,000 came from Arizona, according to the ATF’s firearms trace data.
Experts aren’t sure why these burglaries are increasing. Knight says criminals who see media coverage of other crews getting away with them might be intrigued to try it themselves. (Police arrested three men for the Tampa Arms Company heist on December 15.) And if they don’t get caught, it’s lucrative. The type of cheap, throwaway pistols popular with criminals retail for around $100, yet can garner $600 on the street in New York City, he says.
Why it’s hard to make gun stores more secure
Less mysterious is what can be done to prevent these burglaries, although the solutions aren’t simple.
In a January press conference on gun store burglaries, Sheriff Grady Judd of Florida’s Polk County expressed frustration with store owners, particularly taking to task a burglarized store in Lakeland whose owner told Judd’s deputies that locking all his guns in a safe would too expensive and thieves would cut the cables on them anyway. Owners are under no legal obligation to secure their guns after hours, Judd said: “As far as I know, they could leave the stores unlocked at night. They might as well, for the lack of security they have.”
Security measures are left up to gun store owners in 41 states (including Florida) and the District of Columbia. Under federal law, licensed gun dealers are required by the ATF to report thefts within 48 hours. But the bureau can only “recommend” that dealers take “every precaution available to protect their inventory from theft and loss.” In addition, ATF agents are only allowed to inspect gun stores once a year, and the process of issuing warnings and eventually revoking firearms licenses from irresponsible dealers is lengthy and complicated.
Another problem, Knight says, is that “the number of investigators we have versus the number of gun shops in this country is overwhelmingly unequal.”
Most licensed dealers take theft prevention seriously, says Avery Gardiner, chief legal officer for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C. But because dealers have a choice between spending thousands of dollars on security or taking their chances, a number of them go with the latter. Although the number of illegal guns spilling into the market is on the rise, the latest federal budget doesn’t allocate more money to the ATF to help stem the tide, Gardiner says.
Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, agrees that inadequate regulations play a role in the gun burglary boom. “The whole structure now is really to enable a relatively small percentage of gun dealers,” he says. “You see that in a large number of cities, a handful of gun dealers [who don’t adhere to background-check laws or allow straw purchases] seem to be the problem. And they can have an enormous impact on gun violence and gun trafficking, yet federal laws are too weak and the resources too minimal to address it.”
Many states have laws regarding how pharmacies secure their drugs, Webster points out. But gun stores are private businesses, and the government can’t penalize store owners with expensive security requirements that other businesses, such as jewelry stores, aren’t required to put in place. Thanks to the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986, it’s not enough for the ATF to determine a dealer has violated the law—they have to prove the violations were “willful,” which can take years of once-a-year inspections and documentation, even after repeat offenses.
Could regulations and more ATF resources help?
Despite the absence of regulations to secure their guns, most gun store owners do add additional security after they’re burglarized, Knight says. But some won’t. Cost is often an issue, or some might assume that because they were hit once, they won’t be again.
Al Delatorre, the owner of Guns Galore in Lakeland, Florida, 34 miles east of Tampa, found out that one burglary can swiftly lead to a follow-up. His store was burglarized in December and again a few weeks later, despite his alarm system, a barred gate on the front door, and reinforced posts standing guard out front. Eleven guns were stolen the first time and 46 the second, after burglars broke his front door locks and smashed glass display cases to help themselves to his inventory.
Keeping guns in glass cases overnight and not moving them to a safe or vault is a frequent criticism lobbed at store owners, but Delatorre says it’s impractical. “If you had to transport all these guns someplace else, how would you box them all up, and how much time would it take?” he asks. “And on top of that, you’re going to damage some of the guns in the process.”
Thieves can break into a store through a wall from an adjoining business; Knight says that one store with good security was nevertheless burglarized when thieves broke in through the roof.
Delatorre says strong security is important, but he doesn’t think gun-control regulations that target dealers are effective: Gun laws just make it more difficult for legal buyers, he says. “When you talk about gun control laws, you’re talking about laws restricting law-abiding citizens. Criminals don’t abide by laws—that’s why they’re criminals.”
Instead, he proposes stiffer sentences for gun burglars. “Maybe stealing 50 or 60 guns wouldn’t be worthwhile if you had to spend 25 years in prison,” Delatorre says.
Currently, someone caught with a stolen firearm only faces up to 10 years in prison, Knight says, but could get more time depending on other charges.
City lawmakers who want to do something about their city’s contribution to the illegal gun market may find themselves hamstrung by their states’ preemption laws, which prevent local governments from passing ordinances restricting gun owners. The mayor of Tallahassee recently won a court battle with guns-rights groups over its laws banning the use of firearms in city parks, but those ordinances had never been enforced, and the court left Florida’s preemption laws intact. Only five states don’t have any preemption restrictions on local laws. In California, which has limited preemption, Sacramento and Los Angeles passed ammunition record-keeping ordinances that let police compare records of local ammo sales against lists of people prohibited from owning firearms.
But in most places, it’s up to dealers to keep their stock safe. That’s what’s happening at the Tampa Arms Company: Today, black steel cages now line one wall. Each cage holds only three or four guns and is locked individually, even during store hours. In front of the store, cement-filled pillars have been installed in front of the door, in an effort to prevent another smash-and-grab.