Stolen Guns Fuel Underground Market For Criminals in California

Law Enforcement Leaders Describe A “Rent A Gun” Market On The Streets

They’re objects some consider as valuable as cash or jewelry: guns.

When people break into homes or businesses, guns are often the target, said Graham Barlowe, the Special Agent in Charge of the Sacramento office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“Cash is extremely valuable because it can get you a number of things, but of the commodities that we find that people that are involved in criminal activity are looking for, guns are very high on the list.”

A recent string of robberies in Sacramento points to that.

At least seven gun stores have been targeted for burglaries in that area in the past few months. Including two on July 14.

One of those was captured on security camera video. It shows a group of five men crashing an SUV through the front door of a gun store, 45 miles northeast of Sacramento. The video shows the men climbing over the crumpled security fencing that they tore through with the SUV.

That same night, police say, the men hit a Folsom gun store before being caught by Oakland Police Department officers.

“Whenever I see a stolen gun, I see a future robbery, I see a future homicide, I see a future assault.,” says Barlowe.

On a typical day at least 34 guns are reported as lost or stolen in California. That adds up to more than 12,000 a year.

According to data from the California Department of Justice, nearly 70,000 guns were reported lost or stolen to law enforcement agencies in the state between January 1, 2010 and September 30, 2015.

“People don't steal guns for their collection,” said Barlowe. “They steal guns to use those guns.”

A joint investigation between NBC TV stations in California found that most of those 70,000 guns were reported stolen, not missing. An analysis, matching those gun serial numbers to police records from more than 70 California law enforcement agencies, found that 2,655 of the guns reported lost or stolen were used in crimes ranging from murder to grand theft.

Click here to read more on what the investigation found.

Eric Jones, Chief of Police for the City of Stockton Police Department said, he knows a large percentage of the stolen guns found in the database end up on the streets of his city. 

The data analysis shows a large number of guns are reported stolen in the Sacramento and the Central Valley area. In the nearly five-year period, Sacramento agencies received 3,627 reports of guns stolen; Bakersfield 2,879 and Stockton 2,476. 

Click here to see how many guns were reported lost or stolen to California law enforcement agencies from 2010-2015. 

“I really do believe the reason that firearms are really looked for by burglars in a lot of these crimes is because they are of high value to them,” said Jones. “They're very difficult to trace and there's a big market for them in the criminal world. So, I think it's definitely a commodity they're looking for.”

According to information from the Stockton Police Department, between 800 to 1,000 guns a year are seized at crime scenes or during probation searches.

Making it even harder, Jones said, guns are often rented or traded from criminal to criminal. The same gun being used by a number of people in multiple crimes.

Jones describes it as gun renting.

“Very similar to rent a gun,” he said. “It's in fact, it's it's a lot like that. So, you know there are certain individuals who are designated as the holder and then they will rent it out to various people within that group or another group and use the gun over and over in numerous crimes.”

Barlowe with the ATF said he sees the same thing.

“They use it like a community gun,” he said. “So that's it's available for more than one person. It also lessens the responsibility of one person if they are caught with it because they can say that they were not available or unavailable for the other crime, so they sort of have an alibi.”

“There's a story as to what the gun was used (for) and there might be a story as to what the gun will be used (for) in the future,” said Chief Jones. “If we're taking those guns out of the hands of the criminals of the gang members. We're preventing who knows how many other crimes.”

Evin Johnson grew up around gang violence and guns in Sacramento. Even as a youngster Johnson says he knew how to buy a gun off the street.

“Being around guns and stuff, it was just something normal for me growing up,” he said. “At an early age you just kind of…you get used to it.”

He says he thinks a lot of the guns he has seen on the streets are probably stolen.

“Some guys get permits and they help other guys get guns...but, maybe their friends have a felony or something like a misdemeanor charge, they can’t get a gun,” he said. “Most of them are probably stolen.”

ATF’s Barlowe says if someone is looking for a way to get a gun, they will find it.

“If they can’t go to a store and buy one (they) will go outside the state and purchase firearms outside the state,”he said. “Or they will go to the stolen firearms market and look to unlawfully purchase a stolen firearm. Or they will go to the unfinished firearms market and they will buy an unfinished or ghost gun and finish it themselves. Generally unlawfully as well.”

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