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Lost and Stolen Firearms

Written by Dr. Sarah Anderson
Published on April 25, 2023
Research Highlights

Firearm thefts are underreported, and what happens directly after a firearm is stolen is unknown.

Most firearms are stolen from private citizens.

There are no studies on what policies reduce firearm theft or increase recovery.

Over 1 million firearms were stolen in the US from 2017-2021.

U.S. civilians own approximately 393 million guns (Small Arms Survey 2018).

  • In 2016, about 1/3 of American households owned at least one gun (RAND nd).
  • Among U.S. gun owners, 30% own 1 gun, about 40% own 2-4, and another 30% own 5+ (PEW 2017).
  • About 48% of MO households own a gun, ranking 13th in the nation (RAND nd).

Nationally, over 1 million guns were stolen between 2017-2021.

  • About 29,000 guns were stolen from private citizens in MO over this period, 39% of which were recovered (Figure 1; ATF 2023). 15% of all MO theft cases were closed between 2019-2022 (MO SHP 2023).
  • 96% of guns were stolen from private citizens (e.g., homes, cars). 4% were stolen from federally licensed firearm sellers (FFLs) and delivery carriers (e.g., UPS or FedEx) during shipment.

Gun thefts are likely higher than estimates which depend on voluntary reporting in most states.

  • About 75% of private citizen gun thefts are reported (either by requirement or voluntarily) to police; about a third of stolen firearms were found (ATF 2023).

 

Figure 1. Annual firearm theft rate per 100,000 people (ATF 2023).

Risk Factors

Most firearms are stolen from individuals who (Hemenway 2017):

  • own 6 or more guns,
  • own guns for protection,
  • have carried a gun in the past month,
  • live in the South,
  • store their guns loaded and unlocked.

There are no studies regarding why these factors increase risk.

  • The South has higher burglary and theft (45% of all burglary; 43% of all theft) compared to the rest of the country (8-27% all burglary; 12-26% all theft; FBI 2019).
  • The South, Midwest, and West have similar gun ownership rates (about 40%; RAND nd).

Read our Science Note Secure Firearm Storage to learn how storage impacts firearm safety.

Violent Crime

Most violent crimes are enacted with recently acquired firearms (both legally and illegally obtained); about 5% of these are stolen.

  • Most guns used in violent crimes were purchased or borrowed from friends, family, or street sources (e.g., gangs, drug dealers).
  • Thefts may be a source for black market firearms, but what happens to firearms after they are stolen has not been studied.

It is unclear if reducing firearm theft impacts gun availability to violent offenders (Cook 2018).

 

Policies to reduce gun theft have not been studied.

Current research on how firearm policies impact theft, recovery, and rates of violent crime is limited (US Congress 2018; Rostron 2018).

  • Historically, federal restrictions have prevented federal funding of research that promotes or advocates for gun control.
  • In 2018, the law was clarified to allow CDC funding for gun violence research.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives recommends problem-oriented policing (POP) to reduce gun theft (ATF 2023).

  • POP proactively identifies and addresses the root causes of a crime by scanning to identify the problem, analyzing the underlying causes, responding to the problem with tailored solutions, and assessing the outcome (Sidebottom 2020).
  • In one review, POP reduced crime in about half of the studies (Weisburd 2010).
  • While many firearms are stolen from private residences, only one inconclusive study has used POP to measure impacts on single-family home burglaries, but not gun theft specifically (ATF 2023; Scott 2004).

Law enforcement officials from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) recommend safely storing guns to reduce thefts (PERF 2019).

Gun theft rates in states with and without safe storage laws has not been studied.

 

Policies to increase firearm recovery have not been studied.

PERF recommends private citizens report missing firearms and serial numbers as soon as possible (PERF 2019).

  • Required reporting lost or stolen firearms to the police may prevent legally purchased firearms from being illegally sold and claimed to be stolen if questioned by law enforcement (PERF 2019).

Stolen, recovered, lost, or felony-involved weapons can be reported by law enforcement to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a criminal records database managed by the Criminal Justice Information Services.

  • NCIC makes information available to law enforcement nationwide to trace firearms.
  • In 2022, NCIC processed an average 10.3 million transactions/day (FBI 2022; FBI nd).

FFLs and private citizens from 15 states (e.g. MI, OH, IL) must report gun theft or loss.

  • Recovery rates are similar in states with and without these laws (17-39%; ATF 2023).

 

References

ATF Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. (2023, January 11). NFCTA Volume ii Part V: Firearm Thefts. Retrieved from ATF Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: https://www.atf.gov/firearms/docs/report/nfcta-volume-ii-part-v-firearm-thefts/download 

Congress. (2018, March 23). H.R. 1625- Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018. Retrieved from Congress.gov: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1625 

Cook, P. J. (2018). Gun Markets. Annual Review of Criminology, 359-377. 

Criminal Justice Information Services Division. (2023, January 1). 2022 CJIS Year in Review. Retrieved from Federal Bureau of Investigations: https://le.fbi.gov/file-repository/2022-cjis-year-in-review-010323.pdf/view 

Federal Bureau of Investigations. (2019). Table 4 2019 Crime in the United States . Retrieved from FBI: UCR: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2019/crime-in-the-u.s.-2019/topic-pages/tables/table-4 

Federal Bureau of Investigations. (n.d.). National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Retrieved from Federal Bureau of Investigations: https://le.fbi.gov/informational-tools/ncic 

Hemenway D, Azrael D, Miller M. Whose guns are stolen? The epidemiology of Gun theft victims. Inj Epidemiol. 2017 Dec;4(1):11. doi: 10.1186/s40621-017-0109-8. Epub 2017 Apr 10. PMID: 28367592; PMCID: PMC5385318. 

McCraken, H., Okuley, H., & Floyd, L. (2016). Gun Ownership in America. Retrieved from Rand Corporation: https://www.rand.org/research/gun-policy/gun-ownership.html 

Missouri State Highway Patrol. (2023, April 25). Burglary Trend Combined. Retrieved from Show me crime: https://showmecrime.mo.gov/public/View/dispview.aspx?ReportId=160&MemberSelection_%5BSummary+Jurisdiction+by+County%5D.%5BSummary+Jurisdiction+by+County+Hierarchy%5D=MO 

Parker, K., Horowitz, J., Igielnik, R., Oliphant, J. B., & Brown, A. (2017, June 22). 1. The demographics of gun ownership. Retrieved from Pew Research Center: https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2017/06/22/the-demographics-of-gun-ownership/ 

Police Executive Research Forum. (2019, March). Reducing Gun Violence: What Works, and What Can Be Done Now. Retrieved from Police Executive Research Forum: https://www.policeforum.org/assets/reducinggunviolence.pdf 

Rostron A, “The Dickey Amendment on Federal Funding for Research on Gun Violence: A Legal Dissection”, American Journal of Public Health 108, no. 7 (July 1, 2018): pp. 865-867. 

Scott, M. S. (2004, January). Burglary of Single-Family Houses in Savannah, Georgia. Retrieved from ASU Center for Problem-Oreinted Policing: https://popcenter.asu.edu/sites/default/files/library/researcherprojects/BurglarySingleHouses.pdf 

Sidebottom, A., Kirby, S., Tilley, N., Armitage, R., Ashby, M., Bullock, K. and Laycock, G. (2020). Implementing and sustaining problem-oriented policing: a guide. Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science, University College London. 

Small Arms Survey. (2020, March 29). Global Firearms Holdings. Retrieved from Small Arms Survey: https://www.smallarmssurvey.org/database/global-firearms-holdings 

Weisburd, D., Telep, C.W., Hinkle, J.C. and Eck, J.E. (2010), Is problem-oriented policing effective in reducing crime and disorder?. Criminology & Public Policy, 9: 139-172. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-9133.2010.00617.x 

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