Spike in firearm thefts putting guns in hands of criminals

SEATTLE -- Last month, someone stole a revolver, a rifle and two shotguns from shelves inside a neglected and unoccupied West Seattle home. The week before that, a burglar got into a Green Lake house through an open window and took a handgun from an unlocked bedside drawer. Nine days before that, someone stole two rifles equipped with trigger locks from a West Seattle home but also stole the keys.

While state legislators focus on expanding background checks on people purchasing firearms -- a ballot initiative was filed Tuesday that would require background checks for online and private sales -- more guns than ever are being stolen from homes, business and vehicles, putting firearms directly in the hands of criminals. And, law-enforcement officials say it's up to gun owners to stop that.

"We need to talk about gun-owner responsibilities," Det. Ed Troyer of the Pierce County Sheriff's Office said. "Every right comes with a responsibility. Gun owners need to secure their weapons so that they are not misused or stolen."

Stolen firearms on the rise

According to numbers from the Washington State Association of Sheriff's and Police Chiefs, more than $387,000 worth of stolen firearms were reported to the Pierce County Sheriff's Office in 2012, an increase of 14 percent from 2011. Pierce County handled more incidents of stolen firearms, 347, than any other law-enforcement agency in 2012. (Note: the King County Sheriff's Office did not report stolen firearm statistics.)

But, the Pierce County Sheriff's Office isn't alone. The Seattle Police Department reported a 43-percent increase in stolen firearms between 2010 and 2012. And, the Thurston County Sheriff's Office reported a 53-percent increase in incidents of stolen firearms.

All told, $2.8 million worth of firearms were reported stolen by 150 Washington law-enforcement agencies covering 65 percent of the state's population in 2012.

Lt. Greg Elwin of the Thurston County Sheriff's Office said part of that increase can be attributed to the rise in burglaries in general. But, the Seattle Police Department reported a decrease in property crimes last year, and yet the number of stolen firearms went up.

Lt. Loretta Cool with the Tacoma Police Department, which reported more than $252,000 worth of firearms stolen in 2012 for an increase of 55 percent over the previous year, said the increase in stolen firearms can be attributed to more people than ever owning guns.

Burglars are also increasingly targeting firearms because the street value of guns is increasing, Elwin said. And, he said that's a serious problem.

What can be done to curb firearm thefts?

Sgt. Sean Whitcomb with the Seattle Police Department said police will continue their push to keep guns out of the hands people who are not legally permitted to carry them, but gun owners need to do their part to keep their firearms secure.

"Once guns are on the streets, it's impossible to control who gets them: violent offenders, kids, the mentally ill," Whitcomb said.

Elwin said gun owners should record the serial numbers of their firearms, which allows stolen firearms to be entered in a national database and makes it easier for law-enforcement agencies to track firearms used in crimes.

Cool said gun owners can provide the serial number, police can make sure every officer knows the gun was stolen, where it was stolen from, and what it looks like. It's a step police don't take for TV sets or microwaves, she said.

Just like homeowners stay safe by keeping their doors and windows locked, gun owners should keep their firearms secure by locking them up instead of tossing them into drawers or under the bed, Cool said.

"If you have a safe and the safe is bolted to the floor, chances are real good the burglar is not going to get your firearm," she said. "If you throw your firearm in a dresser or a nightstand drawer, you've probably just armed the burglar."

Dave Workman, a spokesperson for Bellevue's Second Amendment Foundation, said there are a lot of ways to keep guns out of sight and out of reach of a burglar. In addition to gun safes, which he described as small fortresses for guns, Workman said he once knew a man who had a false wall built into his house where he stored his hunting rifles.

"It was the damndest thing I ever saw; there were hidden hinges and everything," he said.

But, there are no guarantees for firearm security. Entire gun safes were stolen from homes in West Seattle, Laurelhurst and Magnolia this spring. Nearly 20 firearms were stolen out of gun safes that were broken into in Greenwood and Rainier Beach earlier this month.

That's why Whitcomb said he advises gun owners to get their guns, like prescription medications, out of their homes if they are no longer using them.

Could legislation help keep firearms secure?

Out of five gun-related bills introduced in the Washington State legislature this session, only one passed, creating a list of felons prohibited from owning firearms for law-enforcement use. Of those bills, only one was even related to gun security.

House Bill 1676 would have made a gun owner guilty of reckless endangerment if they left a firearm somewhere where a child could and did get access to it. It would not apply if the gun was stored in a locked box or other secure space. The bill would also require every gun dealer to offer to sell or give the buyer a locked box or device to keep the gun from firing.

Representatives of the state's law-enforcement agencies seemed doubtful gun security is something that could be handled successfully at the state level. And, Workman said most gun owners really dislike the idea of the government telling them how to store their firearms.

Instead, the focus is on steps like universal background checks, which is the subject of one of this year's failed bills as well as the ballot initiative filed this week. But, Workman said the issue of background checks is a red herring.

"Criminals do not go to gun shows to buy their guns; they steal them," he said.

That means the responsibility to keep legally owned firearms out of the hands of criminals remains largely with the gun owners themselves.

"The bottom line is that gun owners need to be responsible with the record keeping and storage of their weapons," Elwin said. "And, all people should be careful and vigilant with the security of their property."