The vast majority of gun owners in this country are responsible people, perhaps more responsible than average; but their guns are still dangerous. The greatest danger is to the gun owners themselves or their families. After all, more than half of the gun fatalities are suicides; and accidents, often involving children, are reported daily by the media and Internet tracking sites such as Joe Nocera's "Gun Report" at The New York Times. The general public is threatened by these guns primarily because they can be stolen and become part of the pool of illegal firearms.
The most recent report of a firearm theft to emerge in the media involves an assault rifle owned by the family of a congressperson from North Carolina. The Raleigh News & Observer reports that an AR-15 was stolen from Rep. Renee Ellmers' (R-NC) unlocked family garage in October 2013. The gun was left outside of a gun locker when it was taken. This is unfortunately too typical -- a person who would generally be considered responsible and who has provision for protecting the gun has a lapse of responsibility and the deed is done. It's so easy for a person who carries a handgun with a permit to leave the gun in a car while going into a place that does not allow guns. Bob, a building restoration contractor doing work for me, told me that at least three times he has found guns in buildings that he was working on. The people who packed up the personal belongings prior to the repair work did not want to handle guns and had just left them. Our permissive gun culture and people's busy lives work together to mean that there are many opportunities for guns to stray.
The Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins has published "Fact Sheet: Stolen Guns" which states that surveys of gun owners suggest about 500,000 guns are stolen annually. The Department of Justice estimates a annual average of 232,400 in their report "Firearms Stolen during Household Burglaries and Other Property Crimes, 2005-2010." A report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives states that 190,342 lost and stolen firearms were reported to the Department of Justice in 2012, 16,667 from dealers. Dealers with federal licenses are required to report lost and stolen guns but individuals are not on a federal level and not at all in most states. It is not known how many of the 10,915 guns reported as lost by dealers were actually sold illegally to prohibited persons and reported as lost to hide the illegal sale. These are huge numbers. Guns with serial numbers reported as stolen and guns with serial numbers removed remain in the pool of illegal guns until they are removed by events such as being thrown in a river after being used in a crime or being seized by law enforcement.
Most gun thefts don't make the news, but the ones that do make clear the seriousness of the danger being created. Two examples should be sufficient -- one about a gun lost in Virginia and then turning up to kill a policeman in Brooklyn (also discussed here) and one about 50 guns stolen from a former gun shop (also discussed here) that had been closed for 6 years. While surveys of imprisoned offenders only show about 10 percent of the guns used in their offenses were stolen by the offender directly, another 70 percent were obtained from friends or on the street rather than from dealers or other legal sources. It is hard to estimate how many of these were stolen by others, but it must be many or most of them. With this many guns entering the illegal gun pool, improved background checks and tight controls on legal transfers of guns will only reduce one of the ways that guns become a threat to the public.
Gun dealers should be required to have insurance to protect the public from guns that go missing or are stolen such as the Bushmaster assault rifle used by the Beltway Sniper to kill at least 10 people that could not be accounted for by Bull's Eye Shooter's Supply. Gun owners in general should be required to have insurance to protect victims of their weapons even after theft. This has been the subject of one of this writer's previous posts -- "The Case for Compulsory Gun Insurance" and many posts on Gun Insurance Blog. The insurers will take strong steps to reduce the risks but will minimize the burden on gun owners to keep their business. A proper balance will emerge from market forces.
How then to reduce the number of thefts? Many states are considering mandatory reporting of the loss or thefts of firearms. This would help greatly if it is done in conjunction with implementation of universal background checks and a requirement for persons who transfer firearms to retain records allowing meaningful tracing of weapons used in crime. The possibility that a stolen gun will result in the owner being identified and being held responsible for negligence is a strong incentive to improve storage practices. Existing household insurance may or may not be written with language that covers this situation but should be required to do so.
We could go further and adopt legislation stipulating that a gun owner who's gun was stolen is responsible for the damage the gun causes at a later time. While courts have refused to apply common law strict liability after a theft, there is no such limitation stopping it from being enacted by statute if legislatures decide to do so. In fact some legislation introduced in the last year in various states has attempted to do this, at least for a limited time or if the theft is not reported. There are other possible measures: Loss of control of a gun could create a presumption of negligence and fault in a manner similar to the presumption for drivers who strike other vehicles from the rear. Specific requirements for locking up guns in the owner's absence and not leaving guns in cars could be mandated and failure to do so could be made a crime; but ever harsher penalties have a diminishing return in stopping either criminals from committing crimes or honest citizens from being careless.
A lot of gun owners consider their guns their own business, but when they're stolen they're everybody's business.