11 Investigates: Good Guns Gone Bad
Law enforcement experts warn that stolen guns fuel wave of gun violence on the streets. Toledo records one stolen gun per day.
Author: Lou Hebert
Published: 10:36 AM EST November 13, 2019
Updated: 11:31 AM EST November 13, 2019
11-INVESTIGATES 6 Articles

TOLEDO, Ohio — Every day in Toledo, a gun is stolen.

From a home, vehicle or business.

It's an alarming trend that is rising and has law enforcement officials concerned, because far too often, as statistics show, these stolen guns end up being used in crimes from robberies to assaults to murders.

Toledo Police records and reports from the news organization The Trace, which tracks gun issues and crimes, shows that Toledo saw a yearly average of 372 gun thefts from 2010 to 2015, representing a 53% increase during that period. And since 2015, gun theft reports continue to rise. That's not just in Toledo but across the nation and throughout Ohio.

The latest data from the National Crime Information Center show gun thefts in Ohio in 2016 approaching 10,000 per year. That's about 70-80 thefts per 100,000 residents. And the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says Ohio is in the top 10 of states with the most number of gun thefts in the nation - in both thefts from gun stores and private owners.

Nationwide, the number of stolen guns reported is now in excess of 300,000 yearly, and that doesn't account for the number of guns stolen that are not reported to police.

What makes these numbers unsettling for some law enforcement officers we talked to is that they see this trend as an epidemic of "hot" guns on the street. And to underscore the potential danger, the FBI and ATF believe that most of the stolen guns will find their way into the criminal underworld or into the hands of people who shouldn't have them, such as teens, gang members, drug dealers, convicted felons, or those deemed mentally unfit to have one.

EXPLORE

11 Investigates: Good Guns Gone Bad

11-INVESTIGATES
Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Fueling crime

These "good guns, gone bad" too often turn up later, sometimes many years later, at crime scenes, including homicides. In New York City in 2016, a well-known and well-liked police officer in the Bronx, Miosotis Familia, 48, was gunned down as she sat in a mobile command post. Assassinated is how fellow officers described the killing of this mother of three. The crime was carried out by an ex-con with a history of police run-ins and mental issues who used a revolver that had been stolen in West Virginia four years prior. 

Earlier that same year, a UPS driver in San Francisco shot and killed three co-workers and injured two others using a gun that had been stolen in Utah. In Atlanta, a thief got into a home to steal an AK-47-style rifle from under a mattress. The next year the weapon was used by a an ex-con to fire a hail of bullets on a car at a gas station, wounding two men. Later that year, the same felon used the rifle to fatally shoot his girlfriend’s neighbor. 

It's a pattern that law enforcement officers say they see all too often. Guns get stolen from homes and cars from law-abiding citizens, only to be sold on the black market in the streets to people who either don't want to go through a background check, or couldn't pass one. Justice Department data shows that stolen guns often make their way into those states or cities where laws on background checks or registrations are more stringent, creating a black market for guns that are now "off the books" or "lost" in the system.  

Kevin Arnett with the Toledo office of ATF says the market for stolen guns is always hot for those want a gun without going through an ID check. 

"(For) anyone who would like to possess a firearms but who is prohibited from possessing one, getting a stolen firearm is their market," he says. Arnett says the problem in the Toledo area is no different that the rest of the nation. "There's always going to be a market for stolen firearms unfortunately," he says.     

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Toledo statistics

In Toledo, the number of guns stolen and reported to the Toledo Police Department police averages about one per day, upward of 350 to 400 a year if all of Lucas County is counted. In recent years the gun theft numbers have been rising, according to police records. The chance of those stolen guns then being put into the so-called "iron corridor" of illegal guns is very real and very high.  

Lt. Kevan Toney,a spokesman for the Toledo Police Department says he can't say for sure where all the guns go, but they usually end up in criminal environments. 

"Whether it's being used for self defense in a drug house, for example or whether, it's used in a robbery or potentially a homicide, we don't know, but certainly when a firearm is stolen that gun is not going to be used by law abiding citizens," he says.

A survey by the U.S. Justice Department in 2016 of inmates in prison serving time for violent crime while using a gun, revealed that 56 percent say they had stolen their gun, and 43 percent said they bought it on the street in the black market. Very few had purchased their gun legally. 

Chapter 3

Chapter 2

Legislative solutions

11 Investigates reviewed daily Toledo Police Department reports over the period of September and October and found more than 50 reports of stolen guns in a two month period. The vast majority were handguns and most were stolen during home burglaries. In a few cases, more than one gun was taken during a single home burglary. There were nine reports of stolen weapons from motor vehicles. In most of those cases says Lt. Toney,  the vehicle had been left unlocked and a gun was taken from center console or glove box. In one case, the person in reporting the theft in west Toledo says they left the handgun in an unlocked car on the front seat under some shirts.

Toledo police say they are concerned about the rise in gun thefts from cars, but there is little they can do other than advise people to secure their guns, or use gun safes or lock boxes to deter the would-be thieves. In some cities and states that are dealing with the growing plague of gun thefts, some new laws have been passed. Alabama recently passed a new law to make every gun theft a felony regardless of the value of the gun. The voters in the state of Washington passed a new law that makes gun owners liable if someone should steal their guns which are later used in crimes. In Lincoln, Nebraska, which recorded 149 gun theft last year, the city council recently passed an ordinance requiring gun owners to lock their cars and remove the guns from being visible to any one on the outside of the vehicle. Other municipalities and states are also weighing similar laws and restrictions as deterrents to gun theft.  

In Ohio, there are no specific laws on the safe storage of guns mandating gun safes or locks.  Nor is there any reporting requirement, except for a statue that says the gun theft must be reported "forthwith." There is no specific language defining what "forthwith" means. WTOL asked the Ohio Attorney General's Office as to whether they might be considering any new more specific restrictions or regulations. A spokesman in Columbus said he was not aware of any new policy proposals on that issue. They said they follow the lead of the ATF on such questions. WTOL also inquired with the office of Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz and was told that the office didn't see a need for any new laws and declined an interview on the topic. Calls to Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates were not returned.

Meanwhile the ATF, the Toledo Police Department, and the Oregon Police Department strongly advocate that all gun owners secure their firearms in both the home and the car. But there are no laws requiring it. 

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Silent menace

Another concern are the numbers of brazen gun store robberies. In Oregon last November, Towers Armory, a gun store and gun range was broken into in a middle of the night raid by burglars who got away with more than 70 weapons, some of them assault style weapons. There have bee some arrests in the case, and some of the weapons have been recovered. Oregon Police Chief Mike Navarre says a check of those recovered weapons indicates that none has been used in a crime. 

But gun store robberies, while dramatic and high profile,  often videotaped by security cameras, account for only about 10 percent of all gun thefts in the nation, according to figures compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.  

It's the home and car burglaries that are the the "silent" menace that the FBI says is helping to fuel the day-to-day gun violence problem in America.  But the FBI and ATF often have a challenging time trying to trace guns that have been stolen because there is no national digital database for guns of any kind. It is disallowed by law. So the ATF, at its tracing center in West Virginia, is forced to use a cumbersome and antiquated system of paper files and in cardboard boxes to sort through records to find matches or to figure out where and when a "bad" gun used in a crime was originally sold by a federally licensed dealer. 

It is both labor and time intensive and frustrating for many law enforcement officials who are trying to solve cases throughout the nation and need this critical information.

Kevin Arnett with the ATF in Toledo tells WTOL that this lack of a national database is a hindrance to trace a firearm, but that the ATF does have the ability and does eventually get a gun traced.

Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Advice to gun owners

But with stolen gun rates rapidly escalating, the most that the ATF and many law enforcement agencies can do is advise gun owners to secure their weapons against thieves.

"The recommendation is to always have a safe, not just because of burglaries, but because their may be kids in the home," says Arnett. His advice is echoed by the Toledo Police Department

Lt. Kevan Toney agrees, " We can't stress enough the importance of locking up your vehicles or your home when you are away. We certainly don't want them to fall into the hands of the criminal elements."

Many gunowners have taken heed, leading to an increase in the sale of gun safes and vaults.  At McElheney Locksmith shop in downtown Toledo, their showroom features several dozen safes and locking systems for guns and other valuables, but more specifically, the safes are made for firearms.

Michael McElheney, one of the owners, says the floor model safes today are configurable for guns, whether long guns and handguns. 

"They have modular storage and a door organizer to put holsters and guns, and racks to place multiple long guns," McElheney says. 

Most of today's safes can be opened with push button numeric codes, or with combinations.

McElheney says it's important that when someone buys a safe for their gun, they bolt it down to the floor, or wall studs.

"They are much more secure and harder to remove from a building if they are bolted down," he says.

The same applies to the smaller safes and lock boxes for cars or vehicles. The boxes have holes pre-drilled for bolting to the frame of a car. A review of police records in Toledo revealed several instances where entire safes or lock boxes were carted away by burglars because the safes were not bolted down.

McElheney also offers what are called "speed vaults," for those people who want to access their guns quickly at for security reasons. A four-button code is pushed and within seconds, with a quick release and pop out action, a drop down compartment  presents the gun so it is ready to use.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Recovering stolen guns

Toledo police, as do other departments, do manage to recover some stolen guns. They are sometimes found during a routine traffic stop and the arrest of a felon who was illegally armed with a stolen weapon, or a weapon that was bought from "a friend" or "relative" with out an ID check or background check. This is a frequent loophole and stolen or "lost" guns are frequently traded through this loophole which exist in many states, including Ohio, that do not require background check for "private" sales. 

The property room at the Toledo Police Department is filled with hundreds of weapons that have been confiscated or "recovered" from crime scenes (drug houses and drug seizures) or from people who were accused of having illegal possession or carelessly handling these guns. Some of the weapons have been turned in by citizens who find happen to find them in yards or in vacant properties or where ever they may have been discarded. 

As of October, Lieutenant Toney said, "this year we've had nearly 900 guns booked into our property room and in a typical year we will see over 1000 to 1200 guns come in."

Once a gun comes in it is checked to see if it is stolen. Its origin and serial number is checked (if it hasn't been destroyed), or whether it has been used in a crime. Ballistics testing is done on each gun, and technicians in the Toledo Police Department pull fingerprints, DNA or any other trace evidence that may provide information as to how or where that gun came from, or if it was used in a  crime.

Lt. Toney says with the recently installed "Shot Spotter" acoustic technology system the Toledo P.D. uses to "hear" possible gunshots in areas of Toledo, they have been able to harness that information and their internal testing to make matches between a recovered gun and a shooting incident.