9 Investigates: Gun Thefts On The Rise Across Oklahoma

Thursday, July 12th 2018, 10:44 pm
By: Alex Cameron

60 seconds and a hammer. That's all thieves needed to steal dozens of handguns and high-powered rifles, with apparent ease, from several prominent metro retailers last year.

According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), burglaries of commercial gun dealers are on the rise, in Oklahoma and across the country. But, perhaps more alarming is the fact that these thefts account for just a small fraction of all the guns being stolen.

While some of the stolen guns are recovered, many more are on the street, in the hands of criminals who, police say, are armed as they never have been before.

Consider the potential impact on public safety of these three minutes last year:

  • January 17, 2017 : Three masked thieves smash their way into Dick's Sporting Goods at N. Penn and Memorial after hours; they snag 20 long guns and are gone in less than a minute.
  • December 8, 2017: A lone thief pries open and then raids the gun case at Cabela's at Memorial and N. Western, bagging more than two dozen handguns in just over a minute.
  • December 26. 2017: Three thieves break into Wilshire Gun on W. Wilshire near the Broadway Extension, and need just 45 seconds to haul off 19 brand new handguns and three rifles.

"I mean, you feel incredibly violated," said Tyler Miller, Wilshire Gun's general manager.

Miller says the theft exposed a weakness in their security, which has since been addressed, and cost the company $13,000 in lost merchandise. But the financial hit, he says, is minor.

"My biggest concern," Miller explained, "is anytime you have firearms that are taken...you don't want them to end up in the wrong hands."

The ATF's annual Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) Theft/Loss Report shows there were 14 burglaries of Oklahoma FFLs in 2017, putting 141 firearms in the 'wrong' hands. The agency reported six burglaries of Oklahoma FFLs in 2016, with 57 guns stolen, and seven burglaries and 76 firearms stolen in 2015.

The numbers are similar at the national level: 436 federally licensed gun dealers were burglarized in 2015, resulting in 4,721 guns stolen; in 2017, the numbers jumped to 577 and 7,841, respectively, a 66 percent increase.

National experts on gun violence say, for Oklahomans, the increasing number of thefts locally is worrisome.

"If criminals are stealing dozens, if not hundreds, of guns from gun dealers," said David Chipman, a senior policy advisor at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, "it's only a matter of time before the citizens of Oklahoma are facing those guns in crime on the street."

It's not clear how often stolen guns are used in the commission of a crime, but it's often enough that Oklahoma City Police have an officer dedicated to tracing firearms that are recovered from crime scenes.

On a Thursday afternoon this past January, a Putnam City student called 911 after an apparent road rage incident after school.

"I was on Eagle Lane by Putnam City West High School," the 17-year-old female student told the dispatcher, "and I got a gun pulled on me by a car in front of me."

According to the caller, she honked at the driver of the other car when he abruptly pulled in front of her. She says he responded by pointing a gun at her.

"I'm shaking so bad," the girl continued.

When police later arrested the driver, the written report shows they found "a black semi-automatic pistol" on the floorboard of the car.

"It was an XD-S 9mm, Springfield," stated Cameron Martin, a 26-year-old barber at Fitzgerald’s Barber & Supply.

Martin knows exactly what it was, because, up until about six months prior to the crime, the gun was his.

On July 14, 2017, Martin was at work when his fiancé called and told him thieves had broken into their house, ransacked the bedroom, and found the key to his gun safe.

"I hid it," Martin explained, "and I thought I hid it...enough."

In total, three guns, including the Springfield, were stolen. Martin now realizes he was too casual with the placement of the key, but in his own defense, says he'd bought the safe more for storage than for theft prevention.

"I never had the thought that somebody would rob me," Martin admitted, "but now I know that it's a reality. It can happen to anybody."

It happens to a lot of people.

Records obtained from OCPD show, in 2017, firearms were stolen in 155 different residential burglaries. The total number of guns stolen in those burglaries was 342.

"A lot of them probably go unreported," said OCPD Chief Bill Citty, "so the numbers are probably a lot larger than that."

Chief Citty says, whatever the true number is, there is a clear connection between the increasing number of stolen guns and an increased danger to the public, and to his officers.

"The risk of officers encountering someone with a firearm," stated Citty, "is much greater than when I joined the police department 40 years ago...it's nightly for officers now."

Citty says he worked some of the roughest parts of the city as a young officer, but the firepower he and his contemporaries faced then doesn't at all compare to what's out there today.

"We never saw assault rifles back then, never saw 'em, which is a huge," Citty said. "It's a much higher risk to police officers--well, to everybody."

Adding to the problem, Chief Citty laments, is what he feels is a higher incidence of carelessness among lawful gun owners. As the law has made it easier to carry firearms in public (concealed or open), Citty says, more people take them in their cars and treat them casually.

"I mean, we've had incidents where somebody stuck their gun on top of the hood of a car, like you would a drink or something," Citty recounted, "and then forget it's there and drive off -- we've found them in crosswalks of elementary schools!"

The solution, according to both gun rights and gun control advocates, is for all gun owners to take responsibility for securing their guns more seriously.

"It's the paramount responsibility that you have as a dealer in this industry," said Tyler Miller at Wilshire Gun.

Miller didn't want to get into the specifics of the security improvements made at Wilshire Gun since the December break-in, but he says they are significant and are focused primarily on the security of the building.

Oklahoma law does not require that gun dealers lock their firearms in vaults during off hours, only a couple of states do, but Chief Citty and others with law enforcement backgrounds, like David Chipman at Giffords, feel it's the right thing to do nonetheless.

"I know it's a pain," said Chipman. "If I were running a store, it would clearly take some time to take guns off of shelves and put them in a vault. But guess what--every jewelry store in America does that."

Miles Hall, long-time owner of H and H Gun Range and now a consultant, is careful not to push back too hard on the idea that retailers lock away their firearms at the close of business each day, but he says it's going too far to suggest that those who don't are irresponsible.

"I think that they're wanting to do the best that they can do," Hall said, "I don't know any dealer that doesn't."

Hall says there definitely are measures FFLs can take, short of carrying each gun into a vault, such as putting up iron bars on doors and windows or installing the latest display cases, which feature roll-top gates that lock over the glass.

As for individuals taking greater responsibility for the guns they want to carry on their person or have close at hand in the home, Hall says there are quick access safes, which are perfect for home security, as well as, safes made specially for cars.

The bottom line, Hall says, "Lock 'em up. That would be the way to do it - lock these suckers up."

Cameron Martin is hoping he'll eventually get his stolen Springfield 9mm back. But, in the meantime, he has a better safe for the guns he still has, and also has a better understanding of what's at stake.

"To think that one of my guns, that weren't intended for danger, was used that way," Martin reflected,  "is...is not comforting, for sure."