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Gun store robberies alarm law enforcement officials
6.23.20 – POLITICO –

A gun store in Culver City, Calif. | Ringo H.W. Chiu, File/AP Photo

More than 1,000 guns have been stolen amid the recent unrest, the ATF says. A rash of gun store burglaries has alarmed law enforcement officials and comes amid widespread protests that have been accompanied by incidents of looting and vandalism across the country.

In the last days of May and first week of June, there were more than 90 attempted or successful burglaries of gun stores, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. More than 1,000 guns were stolen in that window of time, the bureau’s assistant director of field operations, Tom Chittum, told POLITICO.

“It’s a lot of guns,” Chittum said in an interview. “It’s the biggest spike I have ever seen of gun store burglaries.”

The scores of break-ins coincided with nationwide protests against police brutality and racism. Protesters were overwhelmingly peaceful, and many law enforcement officers drew criticism for heavy-handed responses. But some people who attended protests also engaged in looting and arson, leading to a federal crackdown that has seen charges filed against dozens of individuals.

Chittum said investigations into the surge of gun store burglaries are underway, and that some of the burglaries appeared to be part of broader looting. Other cases, he added, might have been the work of opportunists.

“I think people realized that police are occupied, businesses may be unattended, so they strike under those circumstances,” he said.

Advocates of tighter gun laws say the burglary surge is evidence that governments should require gun store owners to do more to secure their inventory — and that many owners won’t take sufficient precautions unless that happens.

The leading gun industry group opposes such requirements as too onerous. The string of burglaries, meanwhile, presents an enormous challenge for ATF, which specializes in crimes related to guns and explosives. The bureau usually gets reports of one or two burglaries per day targeting licensed firearms dealers, Chittum said. But on May 31, they received reports of 29. It put an unprecedented demand on bureau resources.

“ATF has gotten very good at responding to critical incidents involving shootings, bombings or fires,” Chittum said. “It is routine business for ATF agents across the country. But it’s usually only in one or two places at a time that we’re addressing these things. It was literally every single field division in ATF that was responding to requests.”

There were more than 100 arson incidents in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., he said, and hundreds more in Chicago — in total, nearly 900 arsons of vehicles and buildings around the country. The bureau is investigating a host of crimes, he said, and he expects to see more arrests and charges. He called it the single largest incident response in the history of ATF.

“We are still digging out, literally and figuratively,” he said, adding that he is immensely proud of the bureau’s response.

Besides combing through evidence from crime scenes, he said the bureau is searching through video and social media posts documenting potential thefts and arsons. A host of charging documents from the Justice Department have cited such evidence — a common law enforcement strategy that concerns civil liberties advocates.

The gun thefts have caused particular concern to current and former law enforcement officials. David Chipman, a senior policy adviser at Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, said tighter requirements on stores that sell guns could defang future burglaries. Some state laws currently require federally licensed firearm dealers — which range from outdoors megastores to tiny pawn shops — to lock up their gun inventory when they close down for the night. But no such federal requirements exist.

“The complaint that I’ve heard from gun dealers is, it’s a pain in the ass,” said Chipman, who previously was an ATF special agent. “You have to remove all of your guns and move them and then come back and then redisplay them. But all I say to that is, every jewelry store has done that for generations. Drug stores secure their pharmacy at night. Electrical plants, nuclear plants secure their reactors from theft or attack.”

“People are not ramming cars into banks or jewelry stores at night, because they know once they get in, they can’t get what they want,” he added.

Chipman also noted that before the protests began, many had predicted unrest. The ATF reached out to partners in the gun industry to warn them about potential burglaries, but more than 1,000 guns still were stolen.

“Everyone was talking about it,” Chipman said. “They were selling guns based on the threat that we’re going to have unrest. This isn’t, ‘Oh wow, we didn’t see this coming.’ Everyone saw it coming. People still didn’t take special precautions. Why didn’t these stores say, ‘I never really secured these guns before, maybe this week I should.’ It’s just irresponsible.”

The firearms industry opposes proposals for stricter security requirements as too onerous, according to Lawrence Keane, top lobbyist for the National Shooting Sports Federation. The gun group takes some steps to push back against gun theft, including matching ATF’s rewards for information leading to the arrests of people suspected of burglarizing gun stores. It also gives gun stores training on how to secure their wares and has lobbied for longer prison sentences for perpetrators. But current proposals requiring stricter security rule for stores, Keane said, would be a bridge too far.

“Our concern about legislation is that it tends to be a one-size-fits-all solution, and that becomes very challenging for smaller retailers,” he told POLITICO. “And most retailers in the U.S. are small mom-and-Pop stores, and they wouldn’t have the financial resources to have the type of security we had seen suggested to be required in legislation. The dealers have a built-in economic incentive to protect their inventory; they can’t sell what’s been stolen and may never be recovered.”

Chipman said he didn’t find the argument persuasive — especially given that stolen guns are often used in violent crimes.

“I get it,” he said. “It’s a pain. But you know, figure it out.”