COLUMBIA, SC — About 5,839 guns went missing in South Carolina during 2012, ranking the state 11th in the nation for stolen and lost guns.
The majority of the guns, 5,718, were stolen. And of those, the vast majority were taken from private citizens.
Gun shows have taken heat recently for putting weapons into quick circulation because no background checks are required for purchases and because anyone can buy a weapon on behalf of someone else. In South Carolina, it is not illegal for people attending gun shows to sell to each other, whether at the show, in the parking lot or afterward.
But guns that are stolen are the real threat when it comes to arming the criminal element, federal and local law enforcement agents say.
It is easier to steal a gun from a private citizen than to trick a firearms dealer into selling one to you if you’re someone who should not legally be able to buy it, such as a convicted felon, ATF spokesman Earl Woodham said.
And a lot of the stolen weapons end up in the hands of violent criminals, Woodham said.
There’s no data on how many crimes are committed with stolen guns, said both Woodham and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.
But criminals prefer stolen guns because they can’t be traced back to them, said Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago of the Columbia Police Department.
That puts the pressure on gun owners to keep their weapons out of circulation.
Break-ins of homes or vehicles is how most gun thefts occur, Lott said.
Often, people will leave a gun in their vehicle, then take it to a car wash or a repair shop where other people have access to the vehicle and the gun, Lott said. The gun disappears, and the owner does not realize it is gone until later, he said.
Secure your weapons
Gun owners should be responsible for securing their guns, said Jerry Stoudemire, the president of Gun Owners of South Carolina, the state association for the National Rifle Association. Stoudemire is a concealed weapons instructor and also owns Little Mountain Gun Supply.
Years ago, people stored guns by standing them in a corner or laying them in a drawer, he said. But now, people should store them responsibly in a gun safe or lock box so they’re not accessible to unauthorized people.
“You have to secure what you don’t want somebody to take,” he said.
If a gun is stolen, then information about the gun, such as the make, model, serial number and caliber, is needed to file a police report on the stolen weapon.
“If gun owners would follow due diligence and simply record the identification data from their firearms in the event they’re ever lost or stolen, an accurate report can be made to law enforcement authorities,” Woodham said.
Stolen guns are bad for the community because they usually go straight into the hands of felons and others who lawfully are not supposed to have them, said Assistant United States Attorney Stacey Haynes, who prosecutes violent crime and federal firearms violations.
And often, it’s difficult to determine if a crime was committed with a stolen gun, Lott said.
“Guns change hands a lot,” Lott said.
If a suspect uses a stolen gun in a crime and considers it a “hot gun,” it’s quickly sold or traded, Lott said.
Guns are currency
There’s a huge market on the street for guns, and they are often traded for drugs, Lott said.
Individuals aren’t the only gun-theft victims, as 210 gun thefts in South Carolina in 2012 were from gun dealers.
After a break-in last year in which three suspects stole about 30 guns, the manager of Guns & Ammo in North Augusta said he turned his shop into a fortress.
He put an iron fence around the building after three suspects bulldozed through the gun shop with a truck.
Stephen Bayazes Jr. lives with his wife in an area behind the shop. He said he woke up to a loud noise and a silent alarm just before 4 a.m.
He shot at the three suspects, killing one, as they were taking the firearms from the store, according to a police incident report.
The two others got away but were caught at a nearby 24-hour restaurant.
The stolen guns were eventually returned to the shop, but the building had hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, said Wesley Powell, manager of Guns & Ammo.
A gun store theft is as upsetting as as a home burglary, Powell said.
“It’s the same feelings you would have if somebody broke into your house and stole everything you worked hard for.”
Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.