Human Nature, Background Checks and The Recovery of Stolen Guns

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“If you own a gun and it gets stolen, chances are you won’t get it back. That’s the not entirely surprising conclusion from a stolen gun study in The Land of Lincoln,” began Stolen Guns Data Reveals Background Checks=Security Theater. Reading such articles, I realize that I usually take far too much for granted, such as the fact that very few Americans understand how the police operate, particularly, how they recover–or for the most part do not recover–stolen property. This is a significant issue in the gun control debate as anti-liberty advocates have latched onto various sorts of enhanced background check schemes, their “high-capacity magazine,” and “assault weapon” bans having been handily defeated virtually everywhere . . .

Considering that polls now show record high support for the right to keep and bear arms, gun banners have been forced to adopt stealthier, “common sense” proposals as part of their never-ending, incremental approach to achieving total civilian disarmament.

Most currently proposed background check schemes would essentially ban the transfer of any firearm, even between members of a family absent direct governmental supervision and permission. In many cases, a parent merely allowing a child to handle a firearm could be construed a crime if done without prior government permission. One of the other selling points of such schemes is the idea–usually vaguely expressed–that such laws will be of great benefit to law enforcement, and thereby, to public safety.

The truth about this issue is that the effects of background checks, particularly beginning the second after they have been done, have virtually no effect on solving crimes or returning stolen firearms to their owners. The Stolen Guns article noted a recovery rate of from 15% to 17% according to federal DOJ statistics, but this is, in my experience, ridiculously high and highly suspect. More in line with reality are the reported results in Springfield, IL, during 2012-2013, of a 4.5% stolen gun recovery rate. In most places, it’s probably lower.

What do I know about this? For years, I was a detective assigned the very particular task of catching people that stole things from motor vehicles. In that endeavor, I also ended up investigating burglaries from homes and businesses as the people that burglarized cars tended to be the same people that burglarized pretty much everything.

Obviously, guns are among burglar’s favorite things.

Stolen guns are usually recovered one of three primary ways:

(1) A police officer stumbles onto a gun in the course of other duties, such as making a traffic stop, runs the serial number through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC–that’s the FBI) computer, and gets a hit.

(2) A gun is pawned at a local pawn shop and its serial number and make and model are entered into a local police database. This requires local laws that mandate pawn shops enter all pawned guns into a police database. They really don’t like to do that. They understand a significant number of pawned guns will be stolen, and if the police seize them, that’s a loss. Most would rather not know. Plausible deniability means profit. Such programs also require police employees be specifically tasked with monitoring and matching burglary reports with pawned guns. Interestingly, many gun owners can’t provide serial numbers of stolen guns for the police, which forces the police to work with descriptions and other less specific factors. The more difficult and time-consuming the task, the less likely the police will do it.

(3) Detectives specifically tasked with solving that kind of crime take the time to catch burglars and work backward to recover everything they stole.

The most likely of these three is, in most places, the first. Most cities do not have pawn shop databases, and most law enforcement agencies–specifically smaller agencies–don’t have detectives specifically tasked with investigating the kinds of crimes that will make recovery of stolen firearms likely. Even major cities that do have dedicated crimes against property details are commonly so overwhelmed by the sheer number of those crimes that they have little time to spend on any individual case.

Let’s visit Johnsontown, a town of 50,000 flyover country Americans. The Johnsontown Police Department has a detective assigned to deal with crimes against property. Every morning, he gets a copy of every burglary or theft reported in Johnsontown the previous 24 hours. The JPD has software that is supposed to do much of the tracking of such things, but it has never worked particularly well, and the data entry requirements are considerable–the database is never up to date–so Detective Johnson reads and files every report, by case number, in one of many file drawers. The real data sorting and retrieval takes place almost entirely inside his skull.

If Det. Johnson develops a lead and manages to gather enough evidence to link a burglar to a crime, he files his report, gets a warrant, and either finds and arrests the burglar, or the warrant waits in the JPD database for the next time an officer runs across the burglar and checks him for warrants. As soon as the burglar is arrested, that case is listed as “cleared” in the JPD yearly crime report.

But what about the guns and other property stolen in that burglary? Unless it is very easy for Det. Johnson to get his hands on it, it will never be recovered and returned to its owner. All that really matters to Det. Johnson, and particularly to his superiors, is that a felony case was “cleared,” in one way or another. The more clearances, the better. This is policing by statistics, not by dealing with the real human tragedies crime produces. This is how it is done in most of America.

Does this mean that Det. Johnson and thousands of other police officers like him are lazy or incompetent? Usually, no. It simply means they’re responding to the expectations of their superiors and to the way their effectiveness as police officers is measured. It may also mean they’re doing their best to deal with an overwhelming number of cases.

In police work as in every other endeavor, the dedication and quality of individuals matters a very great deal.

I once worked for a division commander, a Captain, who rose so quickly through the ranks he had very little actual experience as a police officer and virtually none as a detective. His only concern was making arrests–producing statistics–as rapidly and often as possible. He would often order detectives to make arrests long before it was wise to do so, cutting off sources of information and making the recovery of property impossible. But he was beloved by the Chief because he was producing the right kinds and numbers of statistics.

Recovering stolen property, particularly guns, is difficult, demanding work. It takes dogged determination, and the willingness of detectives to work long hours in less than optimum conditions.

During my days catching car burglars, I recovered enormous quantities of stolen goods, including guns, because I considered it my job not just to clear cases, but to recover and return stolen property to its rightful owners. Virtually every day I encountered absolutely amazed citizens, amazed because they never expected to see any of their stolen property again. Some were even more amazed: the people that didn’t bother to report the theft of their property because they did not, for a moment, believe the police would ever solve the crime. How did I do it?

Burglars don’t just commit a single burglary. They find territories and methods that work for them and commit burglaries until they get caught, or grow out of criminality. That means that when a detective solves one burglary, he should be working that burglar to identify every burglary he has committed, and to identify all of the other burglars with whom he has worked and all of their crimes. As it did for me, this quickly leads to hundreds of crimes and only somewhat fewer burglars, and enormous quantities of recovered stolen property, as well as arrests of people who knowingly bought stolen property. But that rarely happens. That’s an enormous amount of work, and in most police agencies, sticking out too much is not a good thing. Clearing the occasional crime: good. Clearing too many crimes and filling the evidence building makes everyone else look bad by comparison.

Where gun rights are concerned, the lessons could not be more obvious. Background check laws do virtually nothing, statistically or in reality, to hamper or catch criminals. They’re criminals: they don’t obey laws and think those who do are suckers. They don’t obtain their guns legally, they steal them. They know stealing guns is unlikely to get them caught.

Background check laws do nothing whatever to assist in recovering stolen guns, or in catching the people who stole them. While it is possible that a criminal might accidently fall afoul of a background check law by getting caught transferring a gun to someone without government permission, that offense would almost certainly be only one of many more serious offenses, and would come to light only because of ongoing investigations into those more serious offenses. In most cases, wouldn’t be charged anyway in the ensuing plea bargaining that is an important part of stopping prolific burglars.

Criminals generally go out of their way to keep hidden any guns they steal. In fact, most Americans don’t make known their gun ownership in any way that would come to the attention of the police. There are millions of stolen guns circulating in society, and few are ever recovered.

Why stolen guns aren’t recovered has to do with the nature of police work, human nature, and the fact that criminals don’t want to be caught with stolen goods and generally take precautions to ensure they won’t be caught. Background check laws, and registration laws as well, have virtually nothing to do with it.

comments

  1. avatar TXGal says:

    If pawn shop ran stolen gun data base before buying the gun would hat not result in more recovered property? Oh wait, that would require Feds to spend money on a decent program to have a decent program, not going to happen, not a vote getter!

    1. avatar Chip Bennett says:

      That was my thought, as well: provide a voluntary database that pawn shops can check serial numbers against, prior to taking possession.

      My guess, though, is that stolen guns that get pawned are merely a stolen good being fenced – that is, they are stolen for their monetary value, rather than being stolen for any intended use in a crime.

      Again, the real solution is to keep violent criminals behind bars.

  2. avatar Mark N. says:

    The same is true of universal registration, suggested as a method of reducing “gun violence” in an article posted earlier today. One immediately thinks, how so? If a firearm is stolen, the likelihood that it will find its way back into legal channels of commerce is virtually nil.Instead, the burglar will sell it to a fence, who will sell it to another criminal, who will give it to his cousin, who will pass it on to a girlfriend….and not once will a background check be performed that might disclose that the gun was stolen a decade earlier. The parallel to drugs is undeniable. It is illegal to grow, process, manufacture, transport, possess, sell or otherwise profit from the sale of drugs, yet there is a vast, multibillion dollar and thriving black market in illegal drugs. Requiring universal background checks and universal registration of guns will have no more effect on gun violence, illegal gun sales, or possession of guns by felons and the mentally ill than drug laws have in stamping out the drug trade.

  3. avatar BlinkyPete says:

    I remember when it wrote an article on a “background check bill” that would circumvent these efforts, restore previously stolen rights and would do nothing but pay lip service to the anti’s I was called a patsy and an anti. When I pointed out that the WA bill would certainly pass, I was right. When I said they’d immediately reproduce those efforts elsewhere, I was right.

    This is the only issue they can win on. We have both houses, and enough power to overcome a veto. Do we want to lose on pure principal, or should we win on strategy?

    http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/2014/06/daniel-zimmerman/p320-entry-5/

  4. avatar Roymond says:

    I once got a handgun back that had been stolen from my truck. The reason was that there was a kid I was trying to help break out of the criminal scene; he was at a party where some former “colleagues” showed up, and one was bragging about how he’d gotten an “assassination” gun for twenty-five bucks. The kid got a good look, figured it just might be my stolen Ruger Mark II, and went to talk to a “persuader” who owed him a favor. Two days later I had my Ruger back — damaged by a very amateurish attempt to file off the serial number, and it appeared to have been used as a hammer. An examination of the barrel showed it had been fired multiple times and not cleaned, but after a quick cleaning we established it still worked fine.

    Silly me decided to check with the police in case it had been used in a crime. They took it for examination, and . . . somewhere along the line, it disappeared.

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      And the kid couldn’t help you with those criminals.

    2. avatar Jeff the Griz says:

      I think the damaged serial number may have brought you more trouble than a $300 handgun is worth, but it was still your property.

  5. avatar Don Curton says:

    This really matches my experiences with property loss. I have half a dozen anecdotes – which I started typing before deciding not to pile on. The local police force just isn’t set up, directed, or expected to do long term, time consuming work like property recovery. In the words of one officer I unfortunately had to deal with, “that’s why you should have insurance”. Their view is the police arrest criminals, insurance replaces stolen property. Period.

    1. avatar Roymond says:

      And the insurance companies don’t expect the cops to find your stuff, either.

      I can think of four cases I know of where someone got stolen property back. All were due to luck, and only one had any police involvement (a guy got stopped for a drug crime and it was discovered the bicycle he was riding was stolen — the owner got it back four months later after the trial).

  6. avatar SNNNN says:

    “The truth about this issue is that the effects of background checks, particularly beginning the second after they have been done, have virtually no effect on solving crimes or returning stolen firearms to their owners.”

    It is CRITICAL that the gun owners have this reality burned into their brains….”universal background
    checks” are about REGISTRATION….and then gun confiscation. I appreciate that this author may be
    doing what is correct about returning my property. That’s not what legislation like I-594 is about. The
    background check is about getting ALL guns registered…so they can picked up when the political
    climate is right.

    1. avatar Indiana Tom says:

      About all of the “common sense” gun legislation is really about ultimate confiscation and control.

  7. avatar Gov. William J. Le Petomane says:

    The same failings occur over and over among government employees. In government the employees are always chasing the right statistics, but in the private sector everyone knows that the only statistic that matters is profit.

  8. avatar SurfGW says:

    Even if the police recover your stolen gun, it won’t get back to you because it is evidence.
    But universal background checks have been shows to discourage gun ownership, which does increase the need for cops and results in higher budgets for enforcement of such laws and to make up for the increase in crime.
    Cops don’t go for what makes you safe – they vote for job security and bigger budgets.
    Go where the money is – dollars don’t lie

  9. avatar ChrisB. says:

    Whether the recovery is 5% of 15% is no the issue, both of those recovery rates are HIGHER than other burgled property.

    And the whole issue is a canard, we have the stats on guns used in crime they are 85% STRAW buys

    1. avatar Indiana Tom says:

      Do you have any real references and statistics to back that up?

    2. avatar LarryinTX says:

      Yah, I for one don’t believe that, seems “common sense” that the vast majority are stolen.

    3. avatar BlueBronco says:

      If the 85% b.s. stat was true, Bloomer would have a 24 hr ticker tap running on all major networks with citations. The FBI/ATF look at 4% of 4473 rejections at best, I mean the actual ones and not just errors.

  10. avatar tdiinva says:

    What everybody overlooks about universal background checks and registration is that it changes the nature of the market for illegal guns. Right now guns are available to criminals who haven’t been caught yet through legal means. There are stolen guns and then there are straw purchases. There is no market for the import of firearms for illegal use. Make the acquisition of guns difficult enough by closing off these sources and guns for criminal use will be imported from Mexico and other places just like drugs.

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      If there was ever a shortage of stolen guns for sale, the price would go up, and the supply would increase dramatically, as the free market actually does work. Thinking that price would EVER approach the cost of a straw purchase (ie, retail price of a legitimate sale), is just silly.

    2. avatar BlueBronco says:

      Gun smugglers don’t stay in the news when they get caught. However, it is uber business. Just look at Leland Yee. Clyde Barrow and John Delinger, Capone te al got their guns the old fashion way, they stole them from armories.

  11. avatar JSF01 says:

    So You should definitely have all your firearm serial numbers written down and stored in a safe place.

  12. avatar Indiana Tom says:

    Talking to the Deputies around SE Indiana is that most of the stolen guns and property out here go into Cincy, or Indy to be fenced for drugs or money. Usually the same guys repeat the criminal activities over and over as the justice system is a revolving door due to too many inmates.

  13. avatar John Fritz - HMFIC says:

    …. If you own a gun and it gets stolen, chances are you won’t get it back. …

    I’ll go one better. If you own a metric shit-ton of guns and they get stolen, chances are you won’t get a single one of them back.

    But of course now they belong to whichever insurer you use to cover gun theft from your home. Because you have all of your guns insured. Properly.

    Right?

    Why so few hands?

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      Because I really have no use for an insurance company having a list of my firearms, either, even though they were lost in that boating accident…

  14. avatar Brian Hunt says:

    I filed a Police report on my stolen gun had all the info including the serial number also listed it on a number of sights hot guns and so on. So if my gun is found by the Police I will most likely still never get it back. This was in Glendale, AZ? Since guns are not registered in AZ what’s the point of filing a report if can’t come back to me?

  15. avatar Leah says:

    I would like to know; if I have not reported my gun stolen in 3 years and now would like to, what will happen? Also if I have a minor misdemeanor warrants?

  16. avatar Leah says:

    I would like to know; if I have not reported my gun stolen in 3 years in Arizona and now would like to, what will happen? Also if I have a minor misdemeanor warrants?

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