“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.