CHICAGO — Thefts at gun stores are a problem in Illinois and across the country. The thefts have prompted calls for federal legislation aimed at forcing gun sellers to keep firearms safe outside of business hours when thieves are most likely to strike.
Why are gun stores easy targets?
In August, authorities said 40-year-old Bernard Harvey entered Chicago’s Jesse Brown VA Medical Center while holding a long gun. He had fired shots outside the hospital. When officers spotted him in the facility’s clinic area, they ordered him to drop the weapon, and arrested him after he complied.
There were no injuries reports and Chicago somehow avoided becoming the dateline of the next mass shooting in America.
But in the relief, there was a revelation.
The incident cast a harsh light on another nationwide problem.
That night, federal agents traced Harvey’s rifle to a gun store outside of Indianapolis where just two weeks earlier five burglars kicked in doors, smashed display cases and stole more than 30 guns in 90 seconds.
Gun store burglaries are becoming increasingly common and guns stolen from surrounding states are finding their way to Chicago.
Christian Hoffman is the supervisory special agent for the crime gun intelligence center at the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Chicago field division.
“Following the trail of the firearm is what leads us to who the legal purchasers are or the people who are burglarizing those FFLs,” he said.
FFL stands for federal firearms licensee and can be a person’s home, a pawn shop, a gun shop or a sporting goods store.
He said criminals focus on gun stores for an obvious reason: because that’s where the guns are.
“Most of them can’t purchase the firearms legally, so they see the opportunity to get the firearms from burglarizing an FFL,” Hoffman said.
U.S Senator Dick Durbin said the scale of the problem is astounding
“It’s a huge problem,” Durbin said. “There’s a huge inventory of firearms in all of these stores.”
If you took every single McDonalds in America and combined that number with all of the Starbucks locations in the country then doubled the amount, you still wouldn’t equal the amount of licensed gun dealers.
There are some 63,000 licensed gun dealers in America selling handguns, rifles, ammo and camo for safety and sport.
Businesses that deal in dangerous products face strict federal regulations.
For example, pharmacies have to store strong medication like opioids in locked cabinets.
Yet, most gun stores face no legal requirements to secure the weapons they sell.
Tim Jones is a special agent in charge ATF Chicago.
“When you look at the federal guidelines, we do not have the authority to dictate security measures for those licensees,” he said.
Criminals have heard the news.
“The theft of these firearms fuels that illicit trafficking, and once those guns hit the street there’s no telling what can be done,” Jones said.
Jones said stolen guns disproportionately end up in Chicago where heavier regulations mean guns sell for more money on the street than they do in the south and the west.
It’s a very complicated question, but to try to simplify it, we just look at it from a supply and demand perspective,” Jones said. “So as long as there are enough people in the city of Chicago who rely on firearms to maintain a certain lifestyle, they will use whatever avenue available in order to get those firearms.”
That avenue leads right through gun stores.
Durbin has introduced legislation to address the problem of “smash and grab” gun store burglaries by requiring all firearms to be securely stored when a federally-licensed gun dealer is not open for business.
“Congressman Brad Schneider and I have a bill that imposes on these federally licensed firearms dealers a simple requirement: store your guns safely when you close,” he said. “And keep records, so we know what’s in your inventory. That’s about it. I just described the bill in its substance. … We already are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms with respect to how firearms are transferred.”
But gun store owners like Dan Eldgridge owner of Maxon Shooter’s Supply in Des Plaines said new federal regulation would be burdensome for businesses like his.
“There is no one-size-fits all,” he said. “Different stores display things differently. The whole goal of any store security is deny, delay and discourage so you can keep them out of the store in enough time for your local law enforcement to come and respond.”
He said firearms dealers are working hard to prevent thefts and using suggestions from the ATF to beef up security.
“Crime guns pose a risk to our communities and to our law enforcement partners,” Jones said.
Its why, according to officials, protecting guns inside of the stores is a way to keep people safe on the streets.
Illinois is actually ahead of the curve on this issue. A new state law will take effect next year requiring gun shops to have state licenses along with stricter security and record-keeping in order to do business in the state.
Some firearms dealers are taking their own action and have launched “Operation: Safe Store,” sharing best practices and security strategies for gun sellers.
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