Guns have blazed a bloody path through the news in recent weeks. A TV reporter and cameraman killed on live TV in Virginia. A Texas sheriff's deputy shot 15 times at a gas station. A state trooper in Louisiana and a policeman in Illinois fatally shot in the line of duty. In Raleigh, a gunman went on a rampage, killing a pawn shop owner, raping a 15-year-old girl and shooting and robbing a man entering a New Bern Avenue hotel.
For many gun rights supporters the answer to such mayhem is more guns, though in these cases the pawn shop owner, the deputy and the officer were armed. They say guns in the classroom could have stopped the Virginia Tech massacre or the mass killing in the Colorado movie theater. That’s why we need guns in bars, restaurants, schools, playgrounds and national parks.
Their line is that if guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns. But an Associated Press story that ran the day before the shooting on live TV raised a starkly different point. It said most guns used in crimes are stolen, but not from gun shops or pawn shops. They’re stolen from homes and cars.
The growing number of law-abiding Americans who feel compelled to arm themselves is feeding the flow to criminals. Perhaps the phrase should be revised: If guns are outlawed, outlaws would have a harder time finding and affording guns.
A Department of Justice analysis ordered by President Obama as part of a drive to reduce gun violence found that in 2012 there were 190,342 lost and stolen firearms nationwide. The report stressed that that number is likely only a fraction of the actual total because reporting such instances to law enforcement is voluntary.
The AP story focused on the increase in gun purchases around St. Louis after the Ferguson protests and the subsequent 70 percent rise in gun thefts, most stolen from cars and trucks.
“When they go to a baseball game or an event at the convention center ... they can't take their weapons in with them and they leave them in cars,” said St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson. “Criminals know there are guns in cars and they break into cars.”
That may be one reason St. Louis homicides are on pace to hit a 20-year high.
In Jacksonville, Fla., the theft of guns from cars has become so common the police department has a special unit focused on trying to prevent it.
“It's a big issue,” Jacksonville Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Melissa Bujeda said. “Criminals are just going car-hopping, looking for unlocked doors and people who are leaving their guns in their cars.”
In Chicago, where gun violence is epidemic, authorities this year have seized close to 4,700 guns – nearly all of them stolen.
In the Triangle, a surge is legal guns also provides a potential trove for criminals to plunder. In Wake County, the number of pistol permits issued nearly doubled from 15,012 in 2010 to 28,367 in 2013, though the number dropped to 19,384 in 2014. In Raleigh, the number of stolen guns between 2010 to 2014 increased from 305 to 374, a 22 percent jump.
Mike Tilley, who owns the Personal Defense and Handgun Safety Center in Raleigh, said three of his customers, including a law enforcement officer, recently had guns stolen from their cars. But Tilley said gun thefts from cars is a perverse effect of so many venues banning guns. If gun owners could carry their handguns into more settings, he argues, they wouldn’t have to leave them in their cars.
Tilley said the problem isn’t just guns left in cars. It’s the people who break into cars and then are put back on the street. “There have to be consequences,” he said.
Long prison sentences for breaking into a car would be expensive and unfair, especially because there’s no serious penalty for someone who leaves their Glock in the glove compartment and it gets into a criminal’s hands.
Allowing guns in more bars and college stadiums and courthouses doesn’t seem like a safer approach. How about having gun owners be held responsible for their guns? They demand their Second Amendment right to bear arms, but too many are lax or clueless about the responsibility that goes with it.
One cure for gun theft would be phasing in a requirement that all guns be smart guns. Some smart guns can be fired only by someone wearing a special wristband matched to the gun. Others use fingerprint technology. For now, though, the technology is still balky and hard-core, pro-gun groups oppose the technology. They fear the individual controls would be the first step in central control of all handguns.
Gun owners are aware that the legal purchase of guns is the headwaters in the river of guns that flows to criminals. Many gun owners object to pistol purchase permits being public record, saying that thieves will target their homes for gun thefts. The North Carolina General Assembly recently passed a law removing handgun purchase permits and concealed carry permits from the public record.
The truth is more people legally arming themselves doesn’t make us safer. It just provides more guns for criminals. That won’t stop people from legally buying guns, but it ought to be motivation not to lose them.
Ned Barnett: 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver